The Commons: First impressions hastily made

The NDP holds its first leadership debate

Early on in the first NDP leadership debate, one of the moderators admonished the audience for applauding. There was apparently no time for such stuff. Indeed, there was barely any time to say much of anything.

The nine individuals arrayed before us, setup before a backdrop of fidgety humanity, took turns talking fast. Blessed were those who finished their sentences before the moderators, talking fast themselves, demanded that someone else start talking. Within this two-hour lightning round was something called “rapid fire,” in which each candidate was given 15 seconds to explain how they’d revolutionize the national economy or balance the federal budget. It was a perfect blur for the Twitter age, everything made to be answerable in 140 characters or less. Poor Romeo Saganash, suffering from bronchitis, spent the afternoon struggling to catch his breath.

For the purposes of getting through nine candidates and two languages in a scant two hours, it helped that everyone seemed to concur with everyone else. On the generally stated principles of New Democratic governance, the candidates took turns stating their agreement with each other: about inclusiveness and equality and building a green economy and rejecting corporate tax cuts and so on. Nathan Cullen even managed an “amen” to something Mr. Saganash said. And all were equally agreed about who they disagreed with, namely Stephen Harper.

This was, granted, mostly a matter of formality and practicality: necessary introductions on a first date. So what stood out from this afternoon of speed dating?

Robert Chisholm is blessed of a reasonably square jaw and reasonably broad shoulders and those things would probably matter more if he could also speak French.

Nathan Cullen is enjoying himself. He cracked jokes, he laughed, he poked fun and he generally carried himself like he had nothing to lose, which is a lovely way to carry oneself so long as it doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Niki Ashton is blessed of the fierce urgency of now. And when each of the nine candidates was asked to name their second choice, after themselves, for leader, two—Peggy Nash and Brian Topp—identified the 29-year-old Manitoban. So either Ms. Ashton is legitimately impressing her fellow candidates or she’s perceived as among the least threatening.

Brian Topp is eager for a fight. While several of the other perceived frontrunners—Ms. Nash, Paul Dewar and Thomas Mulcair were content to state their own cases and leave it at that—Mr. Topp went out of his way to challenge his rivals. “In May, Jack Layton brought us one step away from being the government of Canada and now we’re all going across the country and members are asking us, ‘Next time can we win?’ And the members are asking us, ‘If we win, will it be worth it?’ ” he posited with his opening statement. “And my answer is that it won’t be worth it if all we’re about is managing the status quo—that’s what Liberals for. And we won’t win if all we do is talk to ourselves about ourselves and talk in platitudes.” Before that minute was up, he’d said “win” twice more and used the word “fight” five times.

Twenty minutes later, during one of the mini-debates within the debate, he took the opportunity to take aim at Mr. Dewar, challenging him to explain how he would pay for his priorities. Mr. Dewar tried to ignore him, but Mr. Topp came back, accusing Mr. Dewar of proposing to add to the public debt. Mr. Dewar insisted that the topic to be discussed at that moment was the environment and that Mr. Topp didn’t have a plan in this regard. After some degree of crosstalk between the two, Mr. Mulcair seemed to bail Mr. Dewar out with the suggestion that a cap-and-trade system would generate revenue.

That was more or less the extent of the afternoon’s conflict. When Mr. Topp raised his tax proposals awhile later, Mr. Chisholm allowed that Mr. Topp’s plan was “interesting.” A moment later Mr. Chisholm upgraded that to “very interesting.”

With the formalities of this first date out of the way, one imagines matters will get more interesting.

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