Peekabo, Getting-to-know-you Phase of NDP Leadership Race Nearing End
October 30th, 2011
[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
The peekabo, getting-to-know you phase of the NDP leadership campaign is, if not over just yet, at least soon drawing to a close.
With this Sunday's announcement by Darmouth-Cole Harbour M.P. Robert Chisholm, and the entry of Churchill M.P. Niki Ashton all-but-assured within a week or so, the field of candidates will be for all intents and purposes set, and preparations for a round of leadership debates can take place in earnest.
[For best access to all the latest developments in the leadership race, don't forget to regularly visit the Pundits' Guide NDP Leadership Portal at http://ndpldr.punditsguide.ca.]
On the heels of her Friday announcement, Parkdale-High Park M.P. Peggy Nash headed straight for the lion's den: an interview with Sun News Network. From there she was heading to Montreal to visit the Occupy encampment, hold a meet and greet in the Atwater Market and a pub night later on in Mile End. On Wednesday she heads out to Victoria for another couple of events.
The entry of Nash (who, interestingly, is Brian Topp's own M.P.) has recalibrated the handicapping of the race somewhat, vaulting her into the top tier of consideration with all the attendant expectations and eventual scrutiny.
And in a move at least in part designed to maintain his own standing, Ottawa Centre M.P. Paul Dewar's campaign pulled off a well-attended Town Hall meeting in Nash's back yard earlier in the week, highlighting his urban policy in a session at the Metro Toronto YMCA.
Meanwhile, after making an eastward swing last weekend to Nova Scotia, Brian Topp returned to the motherlode of existing party members – British Columbia – and made another long campaign swing through the lower half of the province. He started in Victoria, picking up the endorsement of former leader Carole James and several more Vancouver Island MLAs, followed by meetings in Langley, Kamloops, Merritt, Kelowna, Penticton, Castlegar and on to Nelson Sunday. Coupled with earlier visits to Vancouver and Surrey, Topp has covered nearly all the significant clusters of NDP members in southern BC.
He crossed paths in Victoria with Outremont M.P. Thomas Mulcair, who was hosted at a number of meet and greets in Vancouver and then Victoria by University of British Columbia professor and former NDP candidate Michael Byers. Mulcair has also notably picked up the support of 1980's era Saskatchewan MP, and later BC Cabinet Secretary and now Simon Fraser University professor Doug McArthur. His campaign is emphasizing contact with environmentalists in the province, and indeed earlier in the week he delivered the Peter Lougheed Memorial lecture at the University of Alberta, discussing the Quebec government's sustainable development legislation for which he was responsible as the minister.
Topp and Mulcair have yet to join the provincial election campaign in Saskatchewan, but several of their colleagues have already been in campaigning for their provincial cousins: Niki Ashton in Regina, Paul Dewar in Regina and Moose Jaw, Nathan Cullen in Saskatoon and Regina, and Romeo Saganash spending several days in Saskatoon and the Meadow Lake area, with an emphasis on supporting first nations candidates and visiting first nations communities. Dewar is back east in Kingston on Sunday, while Cullen had a session planned in Winnipeg on Saturday, and a meet and greet in Ottawa this coming Tuesday night.
Last weekend, all the declared leadership candidates attended the party's Quebec section conference in Alma (ironically being held in the same hotel as a smaller assembly of Bloc Québécois members who were meeting their own leadership candidates), as did five of the six the weekend before at the Alberta section's "Breakthrough conference". The surprise performance in Alma, according to a Radio Canada report, was the spirited speech in very good french from Nova Scotia's Martin Singh, who promised to finally emulate the Quebec pharmacare program at the national level in an NDP government. Other reports say Dewar read a well-written speech a little nervously, and that Mulcair clearly had most of the room with him, though all the candidates were warmly received.
The early stage of the campaign has seen candidates visit areas of existing strength, hosted by pre-existing contacts, and giving basically the same introductory interview to one local news outlet after another. They are assembling their campaign teams, ironing out the kinks, setting up their social media outlets, soliciting votes to online media polls, filing their registration reports, and setting up their lines of communication and supply.
Few have crossed swords to any great extent with their competitors, nor have party members settled on any common selection criteria.
But that may all be about to change.
For one thing, while many party members have yet to pick their first choice, some moves by a couple of candidates may have proven controversial enough to make them the *last* choice of one subset of members or another. Topmost in this category I would place the calculated risk by Nathan Cullen to propose an electoral coalition with the Liberal Party and Greens (though notably not the Bloc) as a means of replacing the Harper government. While the proposal certainly won over some supporters, it has a certain defining quality for a candidacy, and more than one NDP supporter on Twitter, Facebook, the NDP-themed blogs and bulletin boards was read to say this proposal ruled him out for them definitively. Cullen has since started a blog on his campaign website, which acknowledges that not all the feedback he received was positive.
Another potentially defining event was the interview Thomas Mulcair gave to the Globe's Daniel Leblanc on Thursday, describing an encounter with Steelworkers National Director Ken Neumann which Mulcair claims may have been the first time a dipper said "no" to Neumann. Some in the party have read unnecessary antagonism between the lines, while others are waiting to hear both sides. Certainly Mulcair told a crowd in Dentry's Irish Grill in Vancouver earlier week that, although the candidates were all brothers and sisters who were supposed to come out on March 25th and give each other a big hug ("and I'm sure we will"), he expected "a rough campaign", because of the "normal institutional behaviour of some people who just don't want things to change". Meanwhile, the evening of the Globe story, Topp happened to be attending a big Steelworkers dinner in Langley with Neumann, international president Léo Gerard and a number of provincial MLAs, telling them in a speech that he says "yes" to working people.
Other candidates have their own significant barriers to overcome, and they need to do so soon. Dewar will need to demonstrate some facility and rapid progress in his french to stay in contention, and he has yet to campaign in BC which has a third of the current membership. Topp has to learn the fine art of stump speech and chicken dinner politics, and according to some needs to remember that not all conversations with him are interviews. Still his BC swing has given him the chance to work on that away from the glare of the national media, and he is said to be improving. He ran into his own rough waters Thursday with comments viewed as treading a fine line on the Commons seat allocation legislation, which the provincial section of the party has opposed.
The leadership campaign as a whole also has to move from who's in and what they bring, to a genuine debate of policy and approach between the candidates, so members can gauge their skills and "kick their tires" as Nash told SunTV. I expect the next phase to kick off with a round of policy announcements, some announcements about the campaign teams and further endorsements, and many of the candidates are expected to attend the BC NDP convention in December.
An early disagreement may be the role of the Occupy movement and how closely the party will embrace their tactics as opposed to their message. Nash included a reference to the Arab Spring that had spread to Wall Street and thence to St. James Park in Toronto (the location of the #occupy encampment there) in her campaign announcement, and was already the clear favourite of many in the activist wings of the party such as Duncan Cameron and Murray Dobbin. Cullen and Dewar have regularly visited #occupy locations on their travels (for example in Edmonton), and put those events on their public schedules. Topp has said he's listening, but uses questions from the media about the occupy movement to segue to the problem of income disparities (noted by "those well-known radicals such as the Conference Board of Canada", he says) and tying it to his campaign theme of equality. Mulcair for his part, is also listening, but is reported to say that politicians would be best advised to not to tie themselves too closely to it until the movement evolves into something more substantive.
Debate formats are going to be a challenge with nine candidates, that's for sure, though NDP members will happily sit still for long-winded policy discussions for hours (certainly far longer than most journalists will be willing and able to cover them).
But the party will have nine emissaries on tour across the country for much of the next five months, garnering local media coverage, and selling memberships and recruiting volunteers, and introducing Canadians to a whole new group of political personalities, quirks and traditions. Something to follow besides hockey over the long Canadian winter months.
A good way to pick up a lot of this local coverage is to regularly check in with the automated news aggregation and social media aggregation features I've pulled together at the Pundits' Guide NDP Leadership portal. In the coming weeks, I'll be adding Flickr and YouTube/Vimeo feeds as well. Bookmark it and check back frequently for content in english and french from across the country.