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Opinion

NDP debate in city shows no sure winner

But it proves federal party has fascinating options

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/2/2012 (2965 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Thomas Mulcair, another front-runner, was involved in some pointed exchanges with other candidates Sunday.

TREVOR HAGAN/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Thomas Mulcair, another front-runner, was involved in some pointed exchanges with other candidates Sunday.

A big thanks to the Canadian Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) for televising Sunday's debate among candidates seeking the leadership of the federal NDP. It provided a fascinating glimpse into the future of the NDP. Not just for party members, but surely as well for any Canadian interested in the future of politics in this country.

The NDP is swooning from the rarified air it began breathing in last fall's election. However, having become official Opposition for the first time, the NDP is nonetheless faced with no clear path to growth. The Orange Wave that rolled through Quebec in the last election eventually petered out once it hit Ottawa's ByWard Market. If this really is evidence the NDP has become a legitimate option to govern the nation, then one of the seven leadership candidates we saw Sunday in Winnipeg will become a political history-maker.

The NDP should be happy to see seven candidates in this race. It tells Canadians this is a job worth fighting for. The Manitoba wings of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, which are both in search of a leader but have not a single declared candidate between them, would be well-advised to pay close attention to the breadth and strength of the slate of candidates looking to fill the late Jack Layton's shoes.

However, at this late stage, what do we know of the candidates?

Peggy Nash, one of the front-runners for the NDP leadership, is a party traditionalist.

TREVOR HAGAN/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Peggy Nash, one of the front-runners for the NDP leadership, is a party traditionalist.

First, you could see by the amount of time spent attacking Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair and Ontario MP Peggy Nash that they are the front-runners in this race. We could also see that the campaigns of Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh are spunky afterthoughts, but afterthoughts nonetheless, and that B.C. MP Nathan Cullen has decided to live and die on his insistence that some sort of official co-operation with the Liberal party is the only way to unite "the progressives" and topple the Tories. Finally, it was patently clear that six of the candidates are united in their dislike of former Layton adviser Brian Topp.

As for the debate itself, there were few moments of illumination. Certainly, there is a gap between Nash, a NDP traditionalist, and candidates such as Mulcair and Cullen, who to differing degrees want to rebrand the NDP as a big-tent option for voters.

It was also clear the NDP, even as official Opposition, has few solutions to the most troubling issues of our time. The debate on issues related to the state of First Nations people was a good example. Everyone agreed the problem needed to be fixed; no one had any idea how to actually do it.

Some of the exchanges were just plain dumb. Mulcair, who was otherwise the most elegant performer at Sunday's debate, nonetheless launched a dim-witted attack at Dewar's "Next 70" campaign, the title he gave to his initiative to win another 70 seats so the NDP could form a majority. Mulcair criticized Dewar for focusing on only 70 seats in the next election, and ignoring other seats. Dewar pointed out the title referred to "winning" another 70 seats, not "targeting" only 70 seats. When it became clear Mulcair had fallen victim to the literalists' blinders, there was an awkward pause that did neither man any favours.

Showing that he's not immune to the same flaw, Dewar later went after Mulcair for not donating money to the federal NDP. Turns out that Mulcair did donate money, but only to the provincial wing of the party that he said really needed the support. Again, when it became clear there really wasn't much meat on that bone, an awkward pause ensued. You almost wished this were the Academy Awards, and someone could signal off camera to start the "time-to-move-along" music.

There was also some shortsightedness. Nash's insistence on attacking Topp because he does not currently hold a seat in the House of Commons makes her look petty and desperate. That is a problem many parties have solved. More importantly, it not a winning strategy to lure Topp supporters should he drop out before her.

Of course, we have no assurance there will be a second ballot. In 2003, Layton stunned just about everyone including himself with a first-ballot victory. Such is the nature of giving every qualified member of the party a vote in this convention. With more than 128,000 eligible members, it's unclear how many will actually participate and if so, who they will vote for. None of the members is pledged to any candidate. The NDP will use online voting as well, which will surely serve as an instructive experiment in using new technologies to boost voter turnout.

In late March, Layton's shoes will be filled by a new leader who will be given a little more than three years to prove 2011 was something more than an anomaly. Sunday's debate did not demonstrate with certainty who the best person is for that job. But it did show that the NDP has some fascinating options.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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