Let’s deal with the French thing right away. Each time Paul Dewar spoke French at an NDP leadership debate on March 4 in Montreal’s Bonsecours Market, Quebec-based political reporters made a show of rolling their eyes. At one point, urging the audience to imagine a government that celebrates the diversity of the arts, Dewar said “de les arts,” which is a nice try, but it sounded like he wanted a government that celebrates the diversity of lizards.
Everyone who follows politics has had to get used to candidates for national leadership whose second language is a fixer-upper. Usually it’s French that needs work. In the Liberal Stéphane Dion’s case, atypically, it was English. Dewar, the game and rangy member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, is the latest specimen. And it’s his French. He can make himself understood, but that’s as good as it gets. What can a guy do? He travels with a French tutor.
It’s a larger than usual challenge because the NDP won 59 seats in Quebec in the 2011 election and would like to hang on to those seats, or even win more, in the next election. The other candidates haven’t been shy about pointing out Dewar’s weakness. “It’s very hard to imagine,” Dewar’s effortlessly bilingual rival Brain Topp told one interviewer, “how you can be . . . at the head of a party whose whole future at the moment turns on holding a big breakthrough in Quebec, when you cannot speak to French-speaking Quebecers.”
The Dewar camp’s response is that French isn’t everything. “Michael Ignatieff was fluent in English and French,” Dewar campaign spokesman Joe Cressy said in an interview, “and was equally unpopular in both. What is the knock on Paul Dewar, other than, his French is getting better? I don’t hear one from people.”
And that’s fair too. In six years as an MP, Dewar, now 49, has not made enemies and has built a reputation as one of his party’s most capable parliamentary performers. His challenge has been to prove that he can be a leader, too. It did not go unnoticed when Ed Broadbent, whom Dewar replaced as the NDP’s standard-bearer in Ottawa Centre, announced that he was supporting Topp instead of Dewar for the party’s leadership.
Topp, a long-time backroom organizer, and Thomas Mulcair, the former cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberal government, have received most of the coverage and attention in this campaign. Every other candidate in a crowded leadership field has had to fight for attention and coverage. Dewar’s response has been to bank on his party pedigree. His mother Marion Dewar, a former Ottawa mayor, was also an NDP MP and the party’s president in the 1980s. That’s a longer record as a New Democrat than Mulcair can claim, and more experience facing voters than Topp can boast.
“Paul started by framing his candidacy as being one that starts with the grassroots,” Cressy said. “Paul has put himself out on the road at a ferocious pace. He’s currently been to over 120 communities.”
The other component of his campaign has been to play, here and there, a little against type. The nice guy has been willing to take the odd shot at his opponents. In January, he wondered aloud whether Mulcair was still open, as he had been in the Charest government, to bulk-water exports, a taboo subject in the NDP. “I’ll be frank with you, I haven’t heard Tom speak on this issue since he’s been elected as a member of Parliament,” he told a reporter. At the next leadership debate, Mulcair angrily said he had always opposed bulk-water exports, an apparent contradiction of the public record and a small win for Dewar.
He has played Orthodoxy Cop in other ways, taking Topp to task for not being elected and Peggy Nash, another candidate, for appearing to suggest the Canada Health Act needn’t be as vigorously enforced in Quebec as in the rest of the country.
To Cressy, his campaign spokesman, these are all signs that Dewar can mix it up when he needs. “He’s a lot tougher than Dudley Do-Right.”
Still, this campaign won’t be won or lost on policy differences, which is a good thing because the areas of “violent agreement,” in candidate Nathan Cullen’s phrase, outnumber the differences. What counts is organization, acceptability to many of the party’s assorted factions, and a general sense that a candidate incarnates New Democrats’ sense of themselves.
And by those less tangible criteria, Dewar is having a pretty good winter. His record of strong performance in the House of Commons on foreign policy issues—in English—is an asset. “I’ve watched Stephen Harper,” he said in an interview. “I know how to handle him. This isn’t someone who loses his cool. But he makes others lose their cool and their focus. And I’m not going to do that.”
He also speaks a lot about wanting to run “issue-based campaigns” in the same way Harper’s Conservatives do, rallying party members around specific hot-button issues that motivate them to donate, organize and vote. “I don’t like the issues they run on, but they’ve done the organization well,” he said. “We’ve got to do the same.”
This is part of Dewar’s campaign for what he calls “the next 70 seats,” the ground the NDP still has to gain if it is ever to transform its 2011 election breakthrough into a majority government. It’s a notion that haunts New Democrats: that the greatest victory they have yet won must not turn out to have been a high-water mark.
Dewar’s plan for taking the party to “the next level,” another of the candidate’s favourite slogans, is a mix of arithmetic and hope. “The NDP finished second in 121 ridings in the last election,” Cressy says. “First or second in 224.” So all it needs to do is finish in first in all those ridings where it didn’t finish first last time.
Great. How? “I think it’s a matter of showing members that I am the person to reach out and grow the party,” Dewar said. “That I actually have a vision, not just on the policy side . . . but who’s the candidate and the person that has the most experience? Who has the energy? Who has the passion? Who has the plan to grow the party and go beyond where we are right now?
“I don’t like the language of holding on. I don’t like the language of maintaining. I like the language of growing. I like the language of reaching out.”
It is a language he speaks more fluently, for now, than the language of French, perhaps because the language of reaching out is low on the concrete nouns most languages use to fill in specific details. But this vague, happy language of reaching out is one New Democrats want to hear right now. So if Topp the blue-chip organizer and Mulcair the Quebec heavyweight stumble, Dewar is well-positioned to cash in his party pedigree and his nice-guy image.