The first NDP leadership debate starts defining the contenders -

The first NDP leadership debate starts defining the contenders

Julian, Ashton, Angus and Caron put on a surprisingly lively, revealing show

Guy Caron, left, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian react to the audience as they arrive on stage for the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race, in Ottawa on Sunday, March 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Guy Caron, left, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian react to the audience as they arrive on stage for the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race, in Ottawa on Sunday, March 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

It is a hallowed Canadian custom, and a heritage particularly cherished by Liberals and Conservatives, that the NDP can be relied upon, given any reasonable opportunity, to put on a dour and preachy political spectacle. So the often lively and even, at times, lighthearted first debate of the race to replace Tom Mulcair as leader of the third-place federal party must have landed as a disappointment to the NDP’s adversaries. Can no tradition be counted upon in these turbulent times?

The NDP’s advantage over the Conservatives this winter, when it comes to putting on a watchable leadership debate, is largely a numbers game. There were only four contenders on the NDP stage in Ottawa this afternoon, a far more manageable field than the 14 aspirants (well, 13 when Kevin O’Leary doesn’t deign to show up) that has prompted the custom-podium sector to add extra shifts to keep up with demand from the Conservative debate circuit.

But the NDP organizers also orchestrated the tempo of today’s debate nicely, alternating sections that allowed shorter and longer answers, switching between English and French, sometimes having the candidates square off one-on-one, and breaking up the flow with snappy segments of fun questions about favourite movies, childhood meals, and winter sports.

A little contrived? you wonder. Sure. But it beats the alternative: 90 minutes of, as I might already have mentioned, a dour and preachy political spectacle. And if the format didn’t set off serious sparks or expose stark divides, key differences in the propositions each of the four candidates is offering NDP members, in a contest that doesn’t conclude until next fall, began to come into focus.

Taking the four from west to east, here’s how I heard what they are offering, with an emphasis on what sets each one apart:

B.C. MP Peter Julian has to overcome the impression that he is a stolid but unexciting veteran. He said the two top issues the NDP must address are “the rise of profound inequality [and] increasing poverty, and the worsening impacts of devastating climate change.” No surprise there.

Throughout the debate, though, he repeatedly directed his attention at quite precise issues under those two broader thematic headings. On climate change, Julian repeatedly asserted his unequivocal opposition to both the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines. On inequality, he often came back to cracking down on offshore tax shelters.

His strategy seems to be to try to avoid merely voicing NDP orthodoxy on the big themes by hitting those two hot buttons—pipelines and tax shelters—every chance he gets to make his stance feel less abstract and more urgent.

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton needs to persuade New Democrats who, under Jack Layton, entertained the heady thought that they were on the brink of power, that forming government really isn’t everything. “We are not a party that’s just here to win elections,” she said. No indeed.

Of the four candidates, Ashton talks most fervently about seeing the NDP less as a conventional party and more as the partisan manifestation of a “movement.” “We must launch a movement together, a movement for social environmental and economic justice for all of us,” she said.

What wasn’t clear in the debate is whether Ashton plans to offer a strategy for converting that movement’s energy, at some point, into a winning election campaign. If she means to propose the NDP as an umbrella group for progressives, rather than a party seriously aiming to win the most seats in some future federal election, hers will be an odd campaign.

Ontario MP Charlie Angus is, of those in this race to date, the one who has most taken to heart the notion that political leadership has to be rooted in personal narrative. True to form, his closing statement featured his grandmother, an “immigrant mining widow” in Timmins, Ont., telling him as a lad to pay heed to then-Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis as “our voice.”

Perhaps you’ve also heard that Angus once played bass in a punk rock band? He’s good at projecting his story. This isn’t a trivial point: Many elections have been won and lost on the basis of voters feeling they somehow know one politician asking for their vote better than another.

So far, at this early stage, Angus has sketched his persona, rather than his platform. And he said today that he doesn’t “buy this false binary that the NDP is supposed to be just there as the conscience of Parliament, that we’re sort of too pure to win.”


COUNTERPOINT: Watch an orange-painted wall dry


Quebec MP Guy Carons reputation, where he has a reputation, is as a policy wonk. Still, he scored the biggest laugh of the debate, when he said Justin Trudeau will go into the next election “quoting another famous Canadian Justin,” by asking progressive voters, “Is it too late to say sorry?” (That would be, for those whose playlists run more to “Solidarity Forever,” the refrain from Justin Bieber’s hit “Sorry.”)

Caron wasn’t just getting off a good one. He was more pointed than any of the other three in taking explicit aim at Trudeau. He predicted that progressive voters will be so disappointed with the Liberals by 2019, over electoral reform, climate change and poverty, and more, that they will be open to looking again to the NDP.

But he said the NDP will need policy—starting with a basic guaranteed income—to coax back disillusioned left-of-centre voters. Caron was clearest among the four in promising lots of concrete policy, and not just assertions of principles, or expressions of solidarity with oppressed groups.

So that’s one NDP debate down, with Julian pushing hot buttons, Ashton talking up a movement, Angus spinning his own yarn, and Caron selling policy to lure back wounded lefties. All that and it wrapped up in plenty of time to switch mental gears for the even subtler gamesmanship of the Brier final.


The first NDP leadership debate starts defining the contenders

  1. A very positive initial debate.
    More like a civil and informed conversation among four social democratic activists who respect each other and seek a shared social democratic goal of a Canada in which the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental justice replaces the dominant political culture of “free market” ideology and associated privatization and deregulation espoused by the corporatist twins – the Libservatives and the Conliberals.
    Future debates will enable not only a clear analysis of the destructive impact of free market capitalism on individuals, families, communities and our nation but also a clear suite of constructive policies for our emerging knowledge-based economy and society that will ensure lifelong learning/training opportunities , quality healthcare including dental care for children and the elderly, a clear transition to a green economy, a living income and quality shelter for all. The Nordic social democracies – population over 30 million – are at least a generation ahead of us but provide evidence that our vision and aspirations are achievable.
    These nations are not only leaders in environmental, social and economic policies and practice but also leaders in economic productivity and innovation – something our flagging economy must aspire to.
    The creation of a fair tax system in which loopholes and tax havens for the wealthy and their corporations are abolished will ensure tens of billions of tax revenue – as a recent study revealed.
    In sum, Canada’s social democrats will provide a truly progressive program that is desperately needed and financially possible – all that is required is the political will to govern on behalf of people and the environment rather than for the wealthy and the corporations.

  2. Isn’t “the rise of profound inequality” a US issue, and either non-existent or significantly less so in Canada?

    E.g., Coyne’s article: h$$p://

    • It was anticipatory after the failure of the Trudeau government, who is selling out and asset stripping Canada as they follow Dominic Barton’s plan to enrich the global 1%’er, oligarchs, and banksters.

      Canada is paying Barton $1. The 1%’ers directly or indirectly via McKinsey are paying Barton tens of millions.

      P.S. Why wasn’t the NDP debate held in Canada?

  3. Compared to the joke that the Conservatives have held claiming that they were debates or the outright lies by the Liberals, this was more like a love fest. They did get one thing right. Trudeau campaigned as the far left but is governing from the far right. I’m surprised that Charlie Angus is considering himself fit to lead, this is the guy who promised to support the conservative cancelling of the long gun registry which turned out to be a lie.
    To heck with his constituents, he should join the liberal, thats their forte.

  4. Couldn’t help but notice, their was an awful of exuding from all 4 candidates, sweaty foreheads. They should ask CBC for one of the Hockey Night in Canada towels they use to hang around the players necks to interview them during period intermission.

  5. Well, I really like Niki Ashton, and in fact I voted for her the last time … but I’m seriously disappointed that she seems to be calling for the NDP to abandon any hopes of electoral success or of forming government, in favour of being a “movement”. In my view, such a “movement” can only affect real change if it works together to elect NDP MPs. Had Rachel Notley, Brian Mason, David Eggen, Deron Bilous et al. felt that way, we would probably have a PC-Wildrose coalition in power in Edmonton, and our schoools and hospitals would be crumbling around us under deep budget cuts.

    I want an NDP leader that can seriously contend for Prime Minister, not one that will just be content to yap at the heels of Mr Trudeau or (perish the thought) of a PM Bernier or O’Leary. Social justice in this country can only be won by holding the levers of power in Ottawa. Anything else is defeatism.