UPDATED: Battlelines Visible Under the Surface of NDP Leadership Race
[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
Several weeks into the new year, and the battle-lines that have been percolating under the surface in the NDP Leadership Race seem set to emerge – if anyone will let them.
Playing against his Dudley-do-right image, Paul Dewar has revisited a storyline first planted by friends of the Charest government during the 2008 federal election against perceived front-runner Thomas Mulcair, challenging him to clarify his current position on the bulk export of fresh water. This follows an earlier charge by establishment favourite Brian Topp that Mulcair is a "centrist", which Topp continued to poke at during the Montreal debate with attacks on the record of the Charest government, subtly focusing on the time during which his fellow leadership contestant had been a member of cabinet provincially.
Meanwhile, Peggy Nash's campaign has now situated itself squarely within the activist framework of movement politics, industrial and public sector labour, and identity politics – a characterization they seem quite comfortable with, but which connotes an apparent unwillingness to extend the dialogue to non-traditional NDP voters, at least to party members in other corners of the spectrum.
The major problem for the leadership race itself, is that the structure so far has inhibited the candidates from engaging on the issues where they do differ, and while the membership has been reluctant to see them turn the contest into a brawl (for example, not one leadership contestant raised the issue of Lise St-Denis' defection or attempted to lay blame for it anywhere else, last Wednesday in Toronto), by the same token the lack of opportunity to engage genuine areas of policy and strategic difference is doing the members a disservice.
Last Wednesday's debate in Toronto, organized by the NDP Toronto Area Council, highlighted the problem and its potential solution very well. Ask a motherhood question, and give the candidates 60 seconds to answer it? Of course you're going to get pap and talking points, what did you expect! Give them another 30 seconds to reply. More platitudes and banalities. Open it up for a 5-minute back-and-forth between a subset of candidates – now you're talking, but not if you don't include the candidates who actually differ on that particular issue.
For the mainstream media who are having trouble finding anything to cover in this race, well first of all you have to show up. You can't cover the NDP Leadership Race from Hy's, nor from Twitter. I'm sorry you have two decades' worth of Liberal sources you've cultivated over the years, but they can't help you cover this either (not that they wouldn't be willing to give it the old college try). But you're not going to develop any new NDP sources if you don't go to the places where you can meet actual New Democrats. Outside Ottawa. Only Scott Stinson from the Post and Aaron Wherry from Macleans bothered to attend the Toronto debate in person from the print side, while a few other hardy souls braved the awful audio of the Bloor Collegiate sound board to tune it in over RabbleTV's livestream, and then Linda McCuaig was seen at one of the after-parties. Coverage of the Montreal debate, by contrast, was much more widespread, especially on the french side.
In the hopes that this Sunday's outing in Halifax (organized by the party itself, and therefore hopefully with much better production values than the last two local efforts) will be more productive for all concerned, here is my list of issues on which I believe the leadership candidates can be reasonably expected to disagree. Most of them revolve around how a social democratic party should negotiate the parameters of its first national government.
- The relative contributions of tax policy versus industrial policy in charting a social democratic government's economic direction. More than one person has noted that monetary policy has been completely absent from the public leadership debate as well (though it might have been buried in some of the policy papers, not all of which I've been through comprehensively yet; if so, sorry).
- In light of the first point, what are the acceptable parameters of state engagement with the private sector to achieve national objectives? If public support for revamped and better regulated labour-sponsored venture capital funds is acceptable to redress shortfalls in small business financing options, or targeted support by industrial sector to encourage innovation is welcomed, what kind of public-private equity partnerships would be acceptable – if any – to close the gap in infrastructure remediation quickly enough? This matters for the P-P-Pont Champlain issue, for example.
- Does the Sherbrooke Declaration mean no national standards, or opting out with compensation? And if the former, how does that differ from the Conservative government's current view of fiscal federalism?
- Is the party going to start promoting policies that offer optional top-ups on social programs for the middle class, as an alternative to the right-wing's focus on privatization, or the traditional social democratic focus on universality coupled with a progressive tax system to promote solidarity amongst the 99%? Pensions and retirement income are the program most obviously implicated here. Tom Mulcair so far has the only detailed pension proposal, though after reading all the documentation, I still don't understand the details of it, but then he wasn't included in the pension section of the Toronto debate, so how could I learn more.
- Should private delivery of publicly-funded social programs be reversed, its growth halted, or does anyone now in the leadership race actually support its extension?
- How will a federal NDP government face what will almost certainly be its first constitutional crisis, namely a showdown with the Senate? What priority should be placed on electoral reform, should the two issues be dovetailed, and how does this affect the choice of a "joint nominations" versus "next 70" electoral strategy for the party between now and then?
This weekend's debate is to focus on family policy, so hopefully at least some of these issues should find their way into the mix.
Another real gap in what limited punditry has surfaced about the race to date is the question of what qualities the party's membership should look for in a potential leader. I refuse to believe the only criterion for running a competent or even visionary government is who will give the media the best tape from Question Period and the resulting scrums, or who has the longest list of endorsements. In my mind a decision about whom to support ought to take at the least the following into account:
- Does the candidate have the necessary experience to lead the party, command respect in all quarters, and run a national government with all its complexities in the modern world?
- What are the different candidates' campaigns for the leadership showing the members about how they would try to unseat the Conservatives and install the first ever federal social democratic government in Canada?
- Does the candidate's style favour decisiveness or consultation; and to the extent those are opposites, which is preferable?
- How well will the candidate understand, communicate with and advocate for various parts of the country (Quebec, rural areas and the hinterland, major urban centres, etc.), or the electorate (women, younger voters, the poor, the suburbs, aboriginal citizens, and the increasingly diverse ethnic make-up of the population, the house of labour, the various wings of the environmental movement, professionals, academics, etc.)?
- If the leader is the party's chief strategist, how canny are the strategic options they're proposing in their leadership campaign platforms?
- How well does the candidate get along with his or her colleagues?
- Do the candidates take risks? And if so, are they well-calculated, well-executed ones?
- Who is thinking about the overall interests of the party and country, rather than just their own campaign?
- How well do they parry attacks from their colleagues, and/or the other parties. And, can their campaigns land an effective attack against an opponent?
- Who is the "helluva guy/gal" that can connect with people both in person and across the media, in both official languages?
Some of these factors imply traits that are more immutable, while others can be improved with time and work. Discerning the difference between the two categories will also be important, as will an assessment of the candidates' growth potential in the latter regard.
As to the state of the contest itself, here's my latest take on the campaigns, and in particular the demographics they seem to have had success in attracting.
Peggy Nash – As mentioned above, her campaign has taken shape in the traditions of the party's base, especially on the CAW-CUPE side of the Ontario labour spectrum, and with a strong presence in the large urban centres of Toronto and Vancouver, smaller industrialized (or de-industrialized) centres in southern Ontario, and amongst youth, especially young LGBTT activists and a large swatch of activists and Hill staff. Tuesday she added a string of top-flight labour federation endorsements to her camp, along with noted left-wing pundit Bill Tieleman of Vancouver. Her support is much thinner across the prairies (notably not even Edmonton could assemble a feminist-pot-luck-for-Peggy event in Alberta the other weekend), and in the more rural parts of Ontario. Nash is strongly identified with the fight against wage and benefit rollbacks in the London, Ontario EMD lock-out, having delivered a barn-burner at their day of solidarity events over the weekend, and never fails to urge sympathizers to join the party in every speech to date in the campaign. She is also politely received in Montreal, where she has a definite following. I'll get a better sense of the ground game value of Alexa McDonough's endorsement during this weekend's trip to Nova Scotia, but overall Nash's tour effort has been more focused than comprehensive I guess is the best way to say it.
Thomas Mulcair – His support is often older, and more professional, skews male, and is coming from parts of the membership who have been less involved in active party politics lately or who receive most of their information through the mainstream media. His campaign seems to favour events organized for him, rather than existing party confabs (as seen again recently, for example, in their decision to attend a recently organized event in La Pointe de l'Île tomorrow night, rather than the longstanding debate organized by 5 west-central riding associations on the Concordia campus the same evening). Easily the most polished performer in formal debate and broadcast media settings, Mulcair is challenging the membership to aspire to a broader coalition in order to achieve government, without in my view anyway articulating exactly who would be included or downplayed in that new compact, or many details of what that government would try to accomplish. On the other hand, his mastery of the environmental file is unparalleled on a policy basis, though he has focused more on identifying with the thinkers in the field rather than the activists. Clearly he is also a powerful presence on the Quebec scene for the party, though the defection of one of the 59 did open a tiny chink in the argument of who is best to hold on to the NDP's 59 Quebec seats, a matter that was not aided when he singled out and praised former NDP candidate and Quebec environmentalist Daniel Breton from the audience at the Montreal debate, mere days before Breton crossed to run provincially for the Parti Québécois. Obviously, his campaign is following a Quebec strategy in terms of membership sign-ups, having set an ambitious goal of 10,000. That Quebec base notwithstanding, Mulcair was the first candidate to visit all 10 provinces (no-one has yet visited any of the territories), and he had by far the best attended of all the Toronto post-debate parties I made it to (though I ran out of steam before Nash's which was said to be packed, and couldn't find either Saganash's or Ashton's in time). If I thought the dual citizenship issue bore any relevance to who would make the best leader, I would surely have mentioned it before now, but Mulcair did seem to put it to rest nicely on This Hour Has 22 Minutes tonight.
Brian Topp – I can't tell from the peck on the cheek I got in Montreal whether he is that good a kisser, but his campaign has clearly been working hard since Christmas to redress some of their earlier perceived challenges. For one thing, Topp released a series of policy papers in advance of the first string of debates, playing to his strength on a series of issues close to the membership's heart. Next his campaign sent him on a bit of a media tour, which has now been followed up with a few townhalls across the country. The night of the Toronto debate also saw the release of a set of videos by prominent Canadian performers, easily topped by perhaps the most daring and self-deprecating political ad we've seen in Canada, featuring actor Peter Keleghan ("Brian Topp is a good kisser"). Some more videos of Brian telling his story and discussing his vision have tried to soften his still less than fully animated speaking style with some warmer music. Topp's support predominates amongst decision-makers in the party at the national, regional and local level (joined in January by the former Saskatchewan Premier (Lorne Calvert) and Deputy Premier (Clay Serby)), or many of those most closely affected by the decisions that have been or will be taken. They rely on their personal connections across the country for news and information, and are usually more discerning consumers of news from the mainstream outlets. Of course every campaign has its quota of annoying fanboys on Twitter as well, and the Topp campaign is no exception there. But while much of his support across the country has been quieter (further to the meme often heard before Christmas that no-one knew anyone who knew anyone who was supporting him), Topp's decision to write a letter to the membership in the wake of the Lise St-Denis claim that "They voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton is dead" proved he did have a finger on where the party's sentiment was at, and for the first time elicited a number of open declarations of support for his candidacy in a variety of circles. Also, he has clearly benefited from a lot of practice and likely a fair bit of performance and voice training. The campaign vigourously disputes the spin they say was planted over the holidays about his fourth place standing, but do sound relieved that for now the tide appears to have turned somewhat, leading into the debate season part of the campaign that's now underway.
Paul Dewar – Here is a campaign that is doing everything right, even if the candidate's delivery can be inconsistent in more formal settings, or occasionally the spin can get ahead of itself. Satisfied to hold back on big-name endorsements until the new year (and apparently with more in their back pocket), the Dewar camp had planned a big push out of the gate in January, with a show of strength from their ground game, the first campaign video advertisement, a couple of very respectable caucus endorsements, and the promise of an improvement in his french-language skills. What they got instead was a decent early Friday morning event in the shadow of the Liberal convention that did not quite live up to the "game-changer" status someone attached to it (the campaign disputes exactly who), but still represented a very popular addition to the Dewar team; followed by a mini-controversy over whether a deputy leader should hail from the same province as the leader ("there are more announcements to come", replied the campaign), and a strained performance at the Montreal debate that demonstrated Dewar had perhaps acquired more french over the holidays, but had not yet fully absorbed it, thus making it difficult for any prominent Quebec supporters to endorse him as yet. Undaunted, his team continued a busy campaign on the tour, media, policy, and organization fronts, with Dewar being the first to attend the London EMD picket-line, and launching his new theme and strategic focus ("the real majority", to be achieved with "the next 70"), turning in an awkward performance on CTV's Power Play, followed by a much more polished and comfortable one on Sun TV's The Daily Brief, and last night launching a pre-debate salvo in Tom Mulcair's direction. The net effect is to beg the half-empty-half-full question: is the uneven nature of Dewar's performances evidence that he is not ready for prime-time, or is the scope and ambition of his campaign evidence of his growth potential, and that he is ready for prime time with a little bit more time and work. Certainly he is unmatched amongst the top four in the ability to connect with people one-on-one and in small groups (even before and after the Montreal debate, malgré le français, more than one person pointed out). And where Topp's strength is in strategic messaging, Dewar engenders more loyal and active support on the ground, with reach into the rural areas less drawn to a Peggy Nash. His support is still concentrated in Eastern and Northern Ontario and Manitoba, but is evident in Toronto, across the prairies and in BC, plus they claim to have a team in Montreal, and I guess we'll see what there is for him down east this week. It skews female, young, internationalist in orientation, and policy-oriented in approach, and includes many in the party who would not be comfortable with either Mulcair or Nash at the helm, but have been offside with Topp in the past. People either think he will break-out, or should drop-out, and otherwise aren't sure how to rate his chances.
Those are the four candidates I still see as having a path to win. Of the remaining candidates, I don't believe any has established the organization required to pull themselves over the finish line in first place, but most or all of them should be able to exert some kind of influence over the outcome.
Certainly Nathan Cullen has demonstrated considerable skill in debate settings (most notably in Montreal, where in spite of his french, he connected with the crowd and brought down the house more than once), and his campaign's video targeted at getting young people to join the party is a charming reflection of the energy he's engendered amongst many young people, especially in the west (although kids: please note that public healthcare is not "free"). But the media's fascination with his joint nomination scheme ran headlong last Wednesday into the reality of the party membership in Toronto, a group that has spent the last four elections battling against and finally coming out on top of Liberal pleas for "strategic voting", and was in no mood to hear about a proposal that seemed to them most likely to assist in the Liberal Party's revival. Cullen had a lively post-debate party, with a lot of younger quasi-professional men in attendance. His campaign has been particularly strong in BC, including both Vancouver and the Interior (which he has now toured twice), attracting the very important and influential endorsements of former provincial cabinet minister Corky Evans, and former organization director Ron Stipp (neither of whom seem to rate in the very rote counting schemes dreamed up by party outsiders), and he has skillfully benefitted from having the Enbridge pipeline debate situated right in the heart of his riding.
Romeo Saganash's campaign is following a different path from the others, whether speeches to high schools, skating parties, or a series of speaking engagements at benefits for Attawapiskat (where he apparently owned the room in Toronto). I don't have any good metrics for assessing the campaign's likely performance, but we will get a glimpse with the first financial reports what else might be going on behind the scenes. Certainly in their shoes I would be emphasizing sign-ups as much as the existing membership.
Similarly Martin Singh's campaign tour has taken him to gurdwaras across the country (Sikh temple congregations), as well as party events. His campaign has three offices, the BC one having opened more regularly now, and they are doing personal phone canvassing of the exissting membership, encouraging them to visit Singh's website. Mulcair's campaign has some reason to believe they might be the beneficiary of Singh's support, given relationships between the two campaigns. It will be interesting to see how many new members Singh's campaign can bring into the fold.
Niki Ashton's campaign has released a number of policy papers, notably a very good one on healthcare, and she has been touring small-town Quebec, necessitating a pretty hair-raising trip back to Toronto through bad weather in order to attend last week's debate. Her debate performances since the first outing in Ottawa have not significantly advanced her position in the race, but she is finding her audience, and retains substantial strength in Saskatchewan and a significant minority of support across her home province of Manitoba.
The race is finding differing levels of interest across the country, but is certainly running second to pre-election preparations in Alberta and to a lesser extent BC, and to leadership and rebuilding issues in post-election Saskatchewan. Where support is going in Nova Scotia is an open question, but one I hope to form better impressions on after this weekend's events. Several of the campaigns have strong ties into the Nova Scotia government, but as yet there has been no indication I've seen as to which way the wind will blow.
UPDATE: For another grassroots media take on the race, Ish Theilheimer of StraightGoods.ca asked prominent endorsers of five of the candidates why they had made their choices.
For the latest on the NDP Leadership Race, don't forget to follow the half-hourly news updates, and social media tickers at the Pundits' Guide NDPLdr portal page: http://ndpldr.punditsguide.ca