UPDATED: A Tale of Two Leadership Races
February 17th, 2013
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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
Satellite trucks filled the parking lot at Mississauga's International Centre to see nine candidates at times stumble their way through the first real debate on their way to picking the leader of the third party in the House of Commons.
The combative and fast-paced format was designed to see which of the federal Liberal leadership contestants could master the art of the pithy clip in today's rapid-fire media environment, while still conveying something of substance or connecting to a deeply held value. The answer: very few of them.
Many have still not answered the very simple question of why they are in the race at all, what their unique selling proposition or positioning statement is, or how specifically they plan to lead the party back out of the wilderness. Others are unconsciously channelling the very tabloid TV format they nominally object to, trying to interrupt or take cheap shots in service of landing some mythical punch that would become the clippable moment of the debate.
[Click on image to play CBC-The National's story on yesterday's debate]
While it's become fashionable to champion the value that political neophytes could bring to our system of governance, yesterday's debate clearly demonstrated how politics is a trade that takes considerable skill and experience to do well in; and that not enough of those on stage have completed a sufficient apprenticeship inside or outside of politics to pass muster for the top job. They will need to sharpen up their offerings considerably to justify the expense and effort of staying in the race. It could be that their best contribution to party renewal at this point is to withdraw.
The vacuous but earnest hejiras of several entrants should end now, as should the preening ego trips of others. Meanwhile, the cryogenic candidacy of Martin Cauchon, who still has evident political skills but hasn't had time to update his content or frame since the last decade, needs more resuscitation than time will probably allow at this stage.
Deborah Coyne, I believe, is being unfairly lumped in with the no-contribution candidates, as she shows up well-prepared for every debate, and is clearly the candidate of the strong central government wing of the federal Liberal tradition. She's running a cost-effective campaign suited to its more modest goals, and contributes points of substance with dignity and without personal attack.
Likewise, Joyce Murray has enhanced her reputation as a serious candidate by gracefully defending her controversial "cooperation" proposal for joint nominations with the NDP and Greens against some pretty ham-fisted and clunky attacks from the political amateurs on the stage. A proposal, by the way, that may enjoy more support amongst grass-roots Liberal members than amongst the political operatives who have been attending the leadership debates (h/t @Impolitical), and so should be accorded the respect of a well-considered response.
The gentleman from space, former astronaut Marc Garneau, is probably in the best position of any candidate to give Justin Trudeau's candidacy the kind of dignified vetting it so clearly needs. But Garneau will need to retool his attack a little, as when you criticize another candidate for lacking substance, you better have a quiver-full of your own proposals ready at the tip of your tongue, in order to make the contrast. Having supporters post links to your website on Twitter after the fact just dulls the impact.
Which brings us to the incompetent, nasty and probably career-ending political attack from Martha Hall Findlay yesterday, when she questioned Justin Trudeau's use of the phrase "middle class" based on a personal attack of his family's wealth. If you are going to shoot the King, you do not miss. If you are going to attack, for heaven's sake game out the likely response. Unlike the interesting chess moves we saw in last year's NDP leadership race (see: "The Push, the Pin, the Polls…"), here the Queen just attacked the King from the square right next to him, and was promptly removed from the board, suddenly undoing all the good work she had done to resuscitate her reputation within the party after two other disastrous strategic moves in the past (leading the charge to back Stéphane Dion in 2006, and then spending most of 2011 campaigning in ridings other than her own, which she had told everyone was "safe" but lost narrowly as a result). I do not see how Hall Findlay recovers from this misstep, but if Stephen Carter is as good a political operative as he says he is, he'll have to be proving his worth over the coming weeks.
INSTA-UPDATE: Almost as soon as this blogpost went to press, I noticed that Martha Hall Findlay had posted an apology to her website. It must be getting a lot of traffic, because I can't currently load the page, but I'll comment further if there's anything to add once I can.
From my perspective, the GTA debate was a turning point in the leadership race. I doubt there is anyone left with the ability or organization to catch Justin Trudeau, and very few are left with the legitimacy to vet him. Trudeau took the political openings his inexperienced opponents left him yesterday, and when Hall Findlay foolishly teed him up for the big moment, he hit it out of the park. (Sorry to mix the sports metaphors there.) Garneau has yet to really land a glove on Trudeau, and in fact was forced to defend the young dauphin after Hall Findlay's assault on him proved so unpopular with the audience.
Liberals do not want to see personal attacks against the man who will almost certainly become their leader, and whose persona invokes the hope that better days are returning for their once-great party. They need to give him the chance to improve quite a bit more and lose a bit of the swagger. But more importantly, they need to hear more from him about how he'll lead them out of the wilderness than has yet been on offer. If Justin Trudeau won yesterday's debate, it was only because most of his competitors lost it so badly.
Meanwhile in Saskatoon, far from the radar of the national media, four leadership candidates completed the fourteenth and final debate in a six-month race to pick the next provincial leader of the NDP opposition, and likely the next premier of Saskatchewan.
[Photo credit: Greg Pender, Saskatoon Star Phoenix]
Like the federal Liberal Party, the Saskatchewan NDP had used its glory days as a crutch for one leadership campaign too many in 2009, when its old boys network engineered the installation of former deputy premier Dwain Lingenfelter as "the only one who could win". But a series of clumsy attack ads against the province's popular premier Brad Wall, coupled with Lingenfelter being the wrong leader to sell a decidedly left-wing opposition platform in the fall 2011 campaign, led to predictable results, and the party is now having the wide-open race it needed four years ago.
Featuring two MLAs with backgrounds in teaching (Trent Wotherspoon) and the provincial public service (Cam Broten), along with a medical doctor whose 2009 leadership run nearly caught Lingenfelter (Ryan Meili), and a nationally known labour economist (Erin Weir), the competitive race has featured a detailed and for the most part gentlemanly contest of ideas about resource royalty rates, the provincial tax system, rural farm ownership, the determinants of health, uranium mining, the emerging role of first nations youth in the province's economy and society, and lengthy discussion of how to rebuild and reinvent the party from the ground up.
While fundraising totals and social media counts give some indication of how active the various campaigns are on the ground relative to each other, in fact it possible to see a path to victory for nearly every candidate in the race, as two different recent polls suggest.
[Click on image to open full-sized version]
The amounts being raised and spent are small by national standards – although it's fair to say that some of the provincial NDP candidates will have raised more than some of the federal Liberal candidates to date – but they're being reported on every month. And the number of eligible voters stands at 11,000 – not large, but likely greater than the number of federal Liberals enrolled in the province, and showing a large increase in the number of youth members. On the other hand, the lack of diversity in the Saskatchewan race – four white male candidates in their thirties – stands out starkly against the range of candidates seeking the federal Liberal helm, and is the all-too-predictable result of years wasted not recruiting sufficient numbers of women and diverse candidates in that section of the party, who would then be ready to step forward.
All four candidates are using NationBuilder as their website and online-organizing platform, by the way; a fortuitous coincidence that should assist the party in integrating the data from all four campaigns afterwards to help the rebuilding process.
It will be interesting to look back in five years, and see which of the two leadership races produced the greater change in their party's rebuilding and growth prospects.
UPDATE: Here is the text of Martha Hall Findlay's apology from her website, during the 5 minutes or so when it came back up for air over the past hour:
There are some who believe that I overstepped a line in the Leadership debate yesterday. To Justin, his family and to those who were offended, I apologize. My comments were not meant to be personal, in the sense of being in any way a comment on Justin’s character – indeed, I have the greatest respect for Justin’s passion, enthusiasm and commitment.
My concern is what I have been saying from the beginning: that to lead the Liberal Party and to lead this country, particularly when the economy is the most important issue facing Canadians, we need leadership that not only understands the many challenges facing Canadians, but also understands how to meet those challenges.
When choosing a Leader, it is a person’s record of experience, substance and achievement that are important, regardless of the circumstances into which that person was born.
I am proud of my educational achievements, my background of success in law and business, my record of fulfilling responsibilities to my employees and to my family. I agree with other of my co-candidates, that platitudes and lack of concrete policy ideas are not enough. We all have lofty goals, but it’s how we plan on achieving them that is critical. Clear ideas, clear goals and clear plans of action are what we need to regain the trust and confidence of Canadians.
A comment on my concern over the use of the word “class”:
We all know that we have economic disparity in Canada – too much. We have lower income people who struggle to make ends meet, a great many who get by with the basics, and people who are well-to-do. We also have a great many who, by dint of hard work, improve the situation they started with for themselves and their families. We all know that our society is made up of people of a variety of income levels. But for me, the words “middle class”, “lower class” and “upper class”, although we hear them often in the US and the UK, are terms that carry with them a societal judgment, connotations of social ‘standing’ that I would prefer we not have in Canada.
My objective is to improve access to opportunity for all Canadians, whether it’s a kid at Jane and Finch in Toronto, in Attawapiskat, or in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. We cannot ignore the income disparities that we have – indeed, our focus must be on increasing equality of opportunity. All Canadians want jobs. All Canadians want a better future for their kids. All Canadians want to be proud of their country.
My colleagues in this race have all come from different backgrounds, and have had access, in different ways, to the great opportunities this country can afford. I myself had the benefit of excellent education, opportunities and role models when I was young.
This campaign will have its moments, some we might regret, and we will all face challenges and criticism. It is politics. I will say, though, that if there is a Liberal in this country who doesn’t believe that the next leader will come under intense scrutiny from the Conservatives, the NDP and the Green Party they are mistaken. We need a leader who has the ability to withstand that inevitable scrutiny, to take them on, and indeed – take the fight to them. I have the ability and the commitment to do just that.