NDP debate 1: an embarrassment of riches

Paul Wells on why candidates are still hiding behind one another


Paul Dewar, Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair (L-R) (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

“There were only two candidates on that stage who were ready for prime time,” a guy who works for Tom Mulcair’s NDP leadership campaign told me. “And one of them will never be prime minister.”

I smiled knowingly and nodded. Mulcair Guy, quickly sensing that I had no idea what he was talking about, filled in the blanks. “Nathan was on fire today. If it was maybe 10 years later…”

Ah-ha. This is how you know you’re in a leadership race: every whispered confidence comes with a healthy dose of spin.

Having finally decoded Mulcair Guy’s message, let me pass it along to the home audience. The nine candidates for the leadership of the New Democratic Party should be judged, not on amiability or appeal to the base or any other trivial consideration, but on general mastery of the craft, Mulcair Guy was saying. And the goal toward which the party must now dedicate its energy is winning power.

That much is uncontroversial, or had better be if the NDP hopes even to hold its impressive 2011 election gains, let alone grow further. Next: Mulcair Guy was saying that the only two candidates who performed well at the grandly refurbished Ottawa Convention Centre were Mulcair himself, and Nathan Cullen. And that, since Cullen’s is essentially a novelty candidacy, the choice comes down to Mulcair alone.

See what he did there? Instead of comparing Mulcair to Brian Topp, Peggy Nash or Paul Dewar, each of whom is thought to have a shot at winning this thing, compare your man to Nathan Cullen, who has been ignored everywhere except by one eccentric scribbler.

Much the same happened during the debate’s least soporific moment, when Topp rounded on Dewar and challenged him to explain how he’d pay for all his fancy proposals. The point isn’t that Topp was facing Dewar, who seems to me like the candidate with the least compelling claim to front-runnerdom; it’s that he was facing away from… Mulcair.

This early in the race, candidates in this wide field (not too wide! Don’t listen to our whining: a variety of choices is better for New Democrats than a lack of choice) are hiding behind one another. Mulcair Guy was inserting Cullen between Mulcair and the rest of the field, not to elevate Cullen but to push Topp, in particular, down. Topp ignored Mulcair so studiously for much the same reason. That’s why, when candidates were asked to name their second-favourite candidate, so many named 29-year-old Niki Ashton — because that keeps Mulcairmentum or Toppmentum from building.

It’ll take a while, and a few more debates, for real frontrunners to make their ability clear. Yesterday the main surprise was the solid performances of a few candidates who were not getting taken seriously by the pundit hivemind until now. Niki Ashton comes ready to rumble, as poised and articulate in French as in English. Cullen is funny, relaxed and pertinent. In French, at least, both were more compelling than Dewar. In general, the debate succeeded in adding to the list of candidates who must be taken seriously, rather than subtracting from it.

Who’s at the top? Mulcair’s eloquence and command of detail made him easily the most polished political performer on the stage. The others aren’t even close. But as Mulcair has shown in the past, his ease of expression sometimes makes it easy for him to say doltish things, and there is more than enough unease with the prospect of a Mulcair leadership to give the other candidates hope.

I thought Topp performed very well, strong on details but also succeeding, during the tiny amounts of time available to him, at linking each discussion back to some broader theme. Few of the people I spoke to afterward seemed as impressed as I was. New Democrats have a half-dozen more debates to sort this out before the end of March.


NDP debate 1: an embarrassment of riches

  1. On top of being the most polished, I thought Mulcair also came across calm and competent.  For all his political smarts and experience, he’s come across prickly in the past (seen as one of his big weaknesses) so to avoid that yesterday was important.  Conversely, and perhaps I’m being unfair, Brian Topp just can’t seem to say something without sounding smug.  He’s a really smart fellow, and he knew as much on policy as anyone on stage, but he wasn’t as polished as Mulcair when presenting it. 

    Mulcair Guy was quite right to praise Nathan Cullen.  I thought he did quite well.  If candidates were not doing to distinguish themselves from one another based on policy differences, at least Cullen distinguished himself by being funny.

    Was probably most disappointed by Dewar.  I don’t think he was bad per say, but he didn’t distinguish himself in English, and still struggles in French.  Doubt it’s kills his chances, but if the NDP were looking for an alternative to Mulcair/Topp among the supposed Top 4, I thought Peggy Nash did a better job.

  2. How did the first aboriginal candidate for leader of a major political party do? Curious to hear more about Saganash.

    • I thought Saganash’s performance in the debate was OK considering he was battling the flu and was also extremely nervous. He seems like a very intelligent man who has done a lot of positive things for his region and his people. I just do not think he is ready to lead the federal New Democrats due to his lack of political experience on a federal political scale. 

  3. I have two NDP type friends and what they say makes it sound like Topp = Romney. Party nabobs inexplicably favour Topp but he’s not amiable in person or on tv and base don’t like him. Mulcair is better than Topp in many ways but he’s angry guy and party members are aware Mulcair not pleasant fellow. Both Topp/Mulcair are prickly and easily wound up. Not ideal. 

    Nash and Dewar are quite popular. From what I can tell Nash has passable French but Dewar was slightly below acceptable. Dewar needs to improve French rapidly is he’s to have a chance – Dewar good candidate before May 2011 election but he’s not now. Surely NDP are going to do as much as they can to woo Que and non-French speaking leader is unacceptable. 

    And how bad were candidates French, anyways? We need to establish metric for us non French speaking types. I think people’s French abilities should be based on Chretien’s English – does someone speak better/worse French than Chretien spoke English. 

    • Fortunately Tony, it’s not about what you think …

      • No, its not, but I thought Tony had a good summary.  And we really ought to encourage his posts that consist of more than quotes without context, surely?

      • Since something like 80% of Canadians don’t speak French fluently (if at all) I think Tony’s suggestion re comparison to Chretien’s English is a good one.

    • I heard it said once that you couldn’t understand Chretien in either official language, so I’m not sure that’s the standard I’d go for.

      I think except for Chisolm, everybody’s french was good enough that they can become comfortable in it in a fairly short time when they are put in situations where they have to speak it.  The timeline for fluency starts at “as soon as possible” and ends at “before the next election”.

      As for Topp, I think the obstacle he needs to overcome is the view that he’s the annointed candidate.  The NDP base is used to making these decisions themselves, and some probably resent that some guy they never heard of is being hailed as a favourite.

      If he manages to reach out to enough of the grassroots, he will greatly improve his chances.

    • Ah, yes.  The “Angry Tom Mulcair” character.  When did a little fire in the belly sudden become a bad thing?  Oh right… when it was demonstrated by someone on the left!

      Seriously.  This is a leadership contest, not a vote for Miss Congeniality.  We’ve seen how Mr. Harper handles his more, shall we say, “amiable” opponents.  Martin, Dion, Ignatieff.  Nice guys, by most accounts.  We all know where these nice guys finished.  (And I can’t imagine even Harper’s own supporters would describe him as Mr. Pleasant.)

      If anything, the fact that Mulcair is being painted as “angry guy” suggests that the other parties are feeling genuinely threatened by him.  Like Paul “Mr. Dithers” Martin or Michael “He Didn’t Come Back For You” Ignatieff, Tom “Angry Man” Mulcair is just the latest in a well-crafted series of preemptive character assassinations by political rivals.

      In my mind, the NDP first and foremost needs a leader who can match wits with Harper at to the next election.  Mulcair is that leader. 

    • Chretien’s English actually wasn’t bad … he had a heavy accent, but he communicated effectively and clearly, although from time to time it produced some amusing mistakes.

      Among the NDP candidates

      – Chisholm speaks no French.

      – Dewar’s is painful to listen to  – poorly accented, poor command of grammar, limited vocabulary – he doesn’t pass the Chretien test, and has a lot of work to do before he gets there.

      – Cullen’s French isn’t great in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but he made up for his limitations by speaking fluidly, has an acceptable accent, and clearly has worked hard on it. I’d argue that he makes himself understood and communicates better than Dewar, and passes the Chretien test.

      – Singh was surprisingly strong in French – not fluent, but at least as good as Cullen (better grammar and vocabulary, accent not quite as good).

      – The remainder of the candidates all passed the test with flying colours – Topp, Mulcair and Saganash all have extremely strong French that most would consider fluent or close to it, while Ashton and Nash are quite good in French (far better than Harper).  Nash’s accent is European/academic rather than Quebecois, which makes her sound more formal, but her command of the language is very solid. Ashton does a better job of sounding natural, although anyone listening to her has no problem figuring out that she is not a native speaker.

      • However, can anyone of them lead a party and particularly be an effective leader of the opposition let alone Prime Minister.

        Its amazing we always seem to get back to the basic requirement of a candidate is the ability to speak French fluently or they are simply written off. Never mind whether they have the actual ability to manage a party and run a government.

        I heard many people praise Ashton because she speaks 5 languages. Once again what are her qualifications to lead.

        I guess English speaking Canadians are considered second class citizens unless they can speak French.

        • One of the jobs of a Prime Minister is to bridge the two solitudes.

          IIRC, the thing that sunk Dion was the criticism of his English skills (via that interview with CTV), so it goes both ways.

          Would you vote for a PM you couldn’t communicate with?

          • Except for one thing. 80% of the population is unilingual. Dion could not speak to most of the Canadian people. That is a problem. However, for 17% of the population where most probably speak English not so much.

        • If you think English speaking Canadians are “second class citizens” because a unilingual Anglophone is not considered a serious candidate for leading a country with 2 official languages, does that mean you also consider French speaking Canadians who don’t speak English to be “second class citizens”?

          With 2 official languages and government and politics operating in both languages, the ability to communicate comfortably with BOTH language groups  is part of the minimum qualifications required ” to manage a party and run a government.”

          How many voters in Alberta would find it acceptable if a unilingual Francophone were named a leader of one of the national parties?

          • The fact is Canada is not a bilingual country. How is that possible when 80% of the population is unilingual or speaks other languages?

             Despite what the government says you cannot make two ethnic groups equal. Even Trudeau knew that. It will eventually destroy the country. The politicians can pretend all they want but in fact Quebec does not even pretend it is bilingual. Its French first and to hell with the English minority. In fact Bill 101 was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but the notwithstanding clause was invoked.

            Anybody who lives in a country and cannot speak English, the majority language is going to be forced to remain in Quebec because they will not be able to communicate outside of Quebec.

            Think about it. If an American President said he was going to make the country bilingual i.e. Spanish and English there would be rioting in the streets. Trudeau pulled a fast one on the politicians of his day. They never expected it to be taken this far.

          • You are free to believe that the ability to communicate in both official languages is not a necessary qualification for PM and vote accordingly. 

            I personally will not support a party whose leader cannot speak both English and French. 

          • That’s what makes Canada such a wonderful country. We are both able to express our opinions and vote as we wish.

            What in essence you are saying is that 80% of the population is not fit to lead our country, sit on the supreme court, work in the highest eschelons of our government and of course be the Auditor General.

            You asked how many voters would accept a unilingual Francophone. That is not a hypothesis that could ever happen. Quebec has only  75 seats. Thats not quite enough to win government and the rest of the country would never vote for a unilingual Francophone. How would they communicate with the vast majority of the country.

            Obviously you have bought into the hype that we must discriminate against the majority English speaking population so that we can pander to a minority language group. I don’t believe even Trudeau expected official bilingualism to infiltrate the whole country beyond the government. However, in order to buy peace our weak spined politicians want to perpetuate the myth that we are a bilingual country.

          • Hollinm, I’d go as far as to say that 99% of the population is not fit to lead our country, sit on the supreme court, work in the highest eschelons of our government and of course be the Auditor General.

            Not because they’re not bilingual. Simply because they lack the right skills and mindset. 

            You are part of that 99%. In order to lead this country – on top of relevant experience and ideas – an individual needs to have a deep respect for the vast differences between Canadians. Not just English versus French – anyone who’s travelled this great country will tell you that Albertans are different from Nova Scotians, Quebecers are different from British Columbians. One part of that respect is making an effort to speak to people in their own language – especially when Statistics Canada reports there are 8.5 million French Canadians.

            If you cannot understand that accepting and nurturing linguistic diversity, as well as racial, religious, sexual, and creative diversity is important, well… you’re just proof that a lot of people don’t have what it takes. 

          • Thanks for the lecture and the insults.

            However, you did not address my main point. Why is it necessary to discriminate against 80% of the majority language group to appease a minority? When you can realistically rationalize that then we can talk again.

          • You evidently missed my main point: your 80% majority is a fallacy. Canada is a nation of minorities. It’s about compromise. Between English and French as much as between any other group.

            Speaking of “thinking realistically”, I find it difficult to have a rational conversation with you when you are using the term “discriminate”. Using that term in this context is an insult to Jews, women, African Americans, and everyone else who was the victim of TRUE discrimination.

          • In the interest, however, of constructive discourse, allow me to respond to what I believe to be your “main points”.

            1- You seem to have concerns about a unilingual Francophone becoming Prime Minister, in which case, in your words, there would be difficulty communicating and translations would be required.

            While that situation would indeed be unacceptable, I must dismiss your fears as unrealistic. I challenge you to name a single unilingual francophone Prime Minister. It is impossible, because we have none. In order to reach that position, francophones – who are, you seem to be forgetting, just as much citizens and tax payers as English Canadians – MUST learn English. That is indisputable. 

            2- You seem to have concerns that lack of French disqualifies qualified candidates. While this may be true to a limited extent, it is at most a scapegoat argument, for two reasons:
            a- There is a need for all public officials to be able to fulfill their role as a public representative and be responsible to the public. This involves the ability to communicate with Canadians – many of whom are francophone.
            b- Given the availability and ease of translation services today, officials do not need to learn French perfectly. Look at Stephen Harper – his French is by no means exceptional. He struggles with the language (“les erections inutiles”, anyone?). And yet he managed to obtain a basic grasp of the language, which what is required. Not perfection. Just passable French, which anyone can learn with some work.

            3- You inevitably fall back on the vague charge of ‘discrimination’. 

            Are English Canadians forced to learn French unduly?
            No, they are not. It is required for certain positions – much as educational or technical skills are required for certain positions. The vast majority of English Canadians, by your own admission, do not speak French. Has this prevented English Prime Minsters? Has this prevented the economic dominance of Toronto, the capital of English Canada? Has the continued existence of French and its place on the list of skills needed to run the country caused any significant impairment to English Canadians?

            Where do you get off using the term “discrimination” when English Canadians have the lion’s share of political and economic power in the country?

          • The poster “Andrew” seems to think that viewpoints that differ with his own are invalid.  And, rather than refuting your argurments concerning the “80%”, he insults you. 

          • I am use to that on this board. There are several posters who think anything and everything I say is invalid. So I have developed a tough skin and am determined they will not deter me from offering my point of view.

          • This talk of 80% being discriminated is a false argument. The truth is that any Canadian can become bilingual if they are willing to spend a few years of very hard work to become bilingual. No one is prevented from learning the other language, sure some people have to go to a different region or work harder because they aren’t exposed to both languages, but that is also the case if you want to become a  musician, doctor or athlete. No one has the right to choose these professions while demanding to live wherever they want. To become Prime Minister of this country, you have to become bilingual, it’s not the law, but it’s a prerequisite in the minds of the vast majority of the country. If you want to become Prime Minister, move to any Canadian city across this land, they all have french classes, and enroll in your own future.

          • You forget one thing. Most Canadians are not interested in becoming bilingual. Learning a language and being able to speak it effectively are two different things. I was born and raised in Ontario. I now live in the West. Nowhere did I need to learn French. In fact all the people I interacted with spoke English.
            My wife is French Canadian and has lost the language because she did not use it enough. You have to use the language in order to retain it.
            I envy anyone who can speak more than one language. However, when you have a government introducing policies that discriminate against the majority language group that is a problem. How many civil servants have had their careers truncated because they could not speak French? How many civil servants went to French classes and failed? Canada is being manipulated by the French zealots who think that life revolves around the French language. Yet we have a grovernment bureaucracy that is classifying jobs left, right and centre, as bilingual when there is no need.
            Can you imagine if the President of the United States declaring that country officially bilingual, English and Spanish. There would be rioting in the streets.

    • A good way to evaluate someone’s ability to speak French, is to learn the language oneself. 

  4. The most boring love in of a bunch of left wing socialists trying to be great buddies. Mulcair insulted the west by starting out in French is a debate that had two parts English then French. That little bite probably cost him an awful lot of votes. His arrogance is only exceeded by his stupidity

    • Why would you have watched it? They’re clearly not your party. Furthermore, the Western voters that would be “insulted” by his beginning in French are highly unlikely to be the sort who are even close to considering a vote for the NDP. 

    • “Mulcair insulted the west by starting out in French”? Seriously?
      1. You think that people in the west are “insulted” by other people speaking French? That seems the more insulting comment, to me.
      2. Have you noticed that the Prime Minister begins all of his public remarks in French? So insulting!

      • There are many who consider it an insult that the PM speaks French first when the majority of the population is English. For the majority of the population to learn whatever the PM has to say through translation is an insult. Its called pandering.

        Yes there are many of us who feel that we are being force fed a diet of French. We don’t want it or need it. The farce is the government wants us to believe the country is officially bilingual.

        No amount of twisting and turning is going to make that the reality on the ground. In fact since the draconian official bilingualism policy was introduced  there has been little change in the country in the number of those who believe themselves to be fluently bilingual.

        Of course Quebec does not accept the official bilingualism designation. Its only those of us living outside of Quebec that must tolerate official bilingualism.

        If Mulcair wants to win in B.C. and Ontario he would be much better off speaking to the populations in the language they understand. He looks elitist and arrogant.

        • Sorry, but NDP voters in Ontario are, in general, *highly* unlikely to care about it. Even those who do object are unlikely to switch their vote to Green or Liberal as a result.

          It only cheeses CPC-types. Even then, the *vast* majority of them wouldn’t be bothered by it.

          That just leaves cranky internet commenters.

          • Did you every hear about the silent majority.

            There are many people in Canada who are disturbed by the excesses being perpetrated on the majority by a vocal minority. In any other country there would be rioting in the streets as a result of the rights of the  majority being abused.

          • I’m well acquainted with the silent majority and the folks who are insulted over an Opposition leadership candiate’s usage of French first in opening statements are not members of it.

            Neither your rights nor mine are compromised by such an action. The silent majority could not possibly care less about the issue than they do now.

            The people on both sides of the “language issue” that are worked up about it are the vocal minority. Whether they be Franco-Ranger types or perpetually aggrieved English types.

  5. When there are this many candidates in a leadership race, everyone’s-second-favorite usually wins. Front-runners tend to fight it out to the point that their supporters cannot stand the other front-runners (see Who, Joe, 1976; Dion, Stéphane, 2006).*

    Look for Cullen, Ashton, or maybe Dewar (if he can avoid the fatal front-runner label long enough) to wiggle up the middle as a consensus choice.

    Races with few candidates go much differently, where the person leading at first usually wins (see Harper, Stephen, 2002; Martin, Paul, 2003; Harper, Stephen, 2004)

    * Arguably applies to Trudeau, 1968. Though he did lead as of the first ballot of the convention, he was certainly not considered a front-runner at the beginning of the leadership campaign.

  6. Did Mulcair Guy mention as well that Cullen was retiring?

    • I heard there were phone calls in the riding asking people if they knew Cullen was retiring :-)

  7. Aside from the fact that any one of them would make a better prime minister than the one we have now and that the NDP in general is a much more balanced party than the conservatives, it was clear to me from this first debate that Thomas Mulclair is the most suitable leader, if winning power is the goal.  Topp has a lot of smarts and he did an excellent job as the leader of the backroom NDP.  Hopefully if he doens’t win this he will return to the strategy table.  The other good thing about Mulclair is that he is a former liberal who may be able to help build a bridge to some liberals to come on board for the good of the country ie: getting rid of conservatives.

    • Of course this is your opinion. There are many who would disagree with you.

  8. Well….can you honestly see anyone of these people challenging Stephen Harper let alone becoming Prime Minister of Canada. Inquiring minds what to know.

    • Sorry about the spelling of your name Paul.

    • I think Topp would make serious trouble for Harper. He’s intelligent and unapologetic — much as Harper was when everyone was writing him off. But New Democrats may be looking for other qualities. 

  9. Niki Ashton was so strong – Here is my favorite line ” We are very diverse nation but I would like us to be even more diverse” – Wow! I don’t know maybe she repeated that in perfect French

  10. Incredible performance from Mr. Mulcair…and I could feel it from 5 minute exchange… I would not mind voting for him. 

  11. Is a person even allowed to lead a western political party these days if they have a beard? Isn’t there a Charter clause that will compel Mulcair to shave before the next federal election? Distinct facial hair is for the rhythm section, not the lead singer…

    I’m not sure Canada’s ready for this.

  12. Here is my report card for all 9 of the federal NDP candidates in terms of how they preformed in the debate:

    1. Thomas Mulcair, A. There is no question that this guy is ready for prime time. No other candidate even comes close to matching his ability to present himself as a true statesmen. If he wins, which I am sure he will, look for Mulcair to move the party more to the center. Whether you like him or not, he is the real deal. He has the toughness and fire in his eyes to take on Harper. 

    2. Brian Topp. C. I was not impressed with Topp at all. He seemed very ordinary and smug when it came time for him to debate. His front line political inexperience really showed on stage. He should stick to what he knows best which is staying away from the lens and working behind the scenes. 

    3. Nikki Ashton. B. All I can say is WOW! At the age of 29 she has already presented herself as an NDP leader in the making. She has it all, from intellect to personality to being very articulate. Just give her some time and she will be a force in the party. 

    4. Nathan Cullen. B.  Nathan came across as a very personable and likable guy, with a great sense of humor, he reminds me a little bit of Jack Layton. I thought he preformed very well and he seems to be very politically in tune with policy. However, he seems like a bit of a push over and I think Harper would eat him for lunch. 

    5. Robert Chisholm. D. Boring, uninspiring and does speak french. Look for him to bow out of the race early. 

    6. Paul Dewar: C. A smart enough politician with some front line experience, much like Chisholm, lacks in speaking french. Looked very uncomfortable on stage. He is just not ready and I could just not see this guy as prime minister. 

    7. Martin Singh: B  I was very impressed with Martin. He brings a pro-business sense type of platform into the mix and I like that. He carried himself very well on stage and showed a lot of confidence. His weakness is that he has zero political experience and has never been elected into any form of office. Look for him to grow within the party and become an MP in the next federal election. 

    8. Romeo Saganash: D  In all fairness to Romeo, he was battling a bad cold and seemed extremely nervous in the debate. A very smart man who has done many good things for his region and people. He presented some very unique and different policies in the debate. Needs more time to grow as a politician. 

    9. Peggy Nash C. I do not see what the big deal is with Peggy? She seems to have all the tools but lacks in charisma and originality. She is the only real threat to Mulcair. If she wins, look for her to keep the party to the left as she will not move the party to much past the base. 

    • I didn’t see anything special about Niki Ashton except weird eyebrows, and we all know how that worked out for the Liberals. Other than that this post is pretty on target. The NDP would be stupid not to make Mulcair its leader. His beard reassures me that all will be well. 

  13. Its true. We have not had a Prime Minister with any facial hair since Louis St. Laurent (a mustache at that!).

    Jack actually came the closest of any facial-haired politician in a long time – so maybe, if we are going to have a beared PM its going to come from the NDP?

  14. As a long-time NDP member, I was disappointed (disgusted) that Ed Broadbent, and Roy Romanow endorsed Brian Topp so early in the game.  It was disrespectful of candidates who had not yet announced, and it was disrespectful of the membership.

    Give credit to the NDP membership; we do have a brain; we can figure out for ourselves who do vote for. 

    Broadbent, Romanow, and Topp need only to look at Saskatchewan where four years ago the Party establishment told the membership Lingenfelter would make the best leader. 

    And, look where that decision got us!

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