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NDP's youth leadership debate highlights differences in style, not substance

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The four candidates who want to be the new leader of the NDP are quite clear about what is wrong with Canada, especially as concerns young people, and almost as clear about where the Trudeau government is falling down on the job. They are not as precise and definite as to what they would do if given a chance.

The NDP held its second leadership debate in Montreal on Sunday afternoon – this one focused on youth issues. There were two moderators, former Quebec NDP MPs Rosane Doré Lefebvre and Hoang Mai, both elected in the Orange Wave of 2011 and defeated in 2015. Most of their questions dealt directly with matters of great relevance to young Canadians, such as the rise of precarious employment. There were a few odd exceptions. Asking the candidates their views on pineapple pizza did not seem to have much to do with young people. Nor did questions directing candidates to identify which electoral system they would prefer to first-past-the-post, or to name the single most egregious broken promise of the current Trudeau government. 

On electoral reform, by the way, all save Charlie Angus gave precise answers. Angus, for no clear reason, ducked the question and only offered the NDP would need to win a majority under the current system if it hoped to change it.

A generation that expects to be worse off than its parents

A good part of the 90-minute exercise focused on the reality young people in Canada carry too much student debt, cannot find ongoing regular employment with benefits and job security, and, overall, as Niki Ashton put it, "expect to be worse off than their parents."

The solutions on offer included:

  • Peter Julian’s proposal post-secondary education be tuition free and interest rates on student loans be slashed;
  • Guy Caron’s signature guaranteed annual income pledge;
  • Niki Ashton’s buffet of social measures such as pharma and dental care, combined with a strengthened labour movement;
  • and Charlie Angus’ proposal the federal government lead the way in its own employment practices.

The feds are the biggest employer of contract workers in the country, the Northern Ontario MP said, and they should transition to a far higher proportion of permanent jobs. In a similar vein, Julian wants to do away with unpaid corporate internships.  

The candidates did not differ so much on substance as on style and focus.

Guy Caron, the lone economist in the group, talked about the pernicious effect of economic thinking focused on short-term profits for business, which he characterized as the legacy of the Reagan-Thatcher era.

Niki Ashton and Peter Julian both emphasized the importance of their connections to social movements. Ashton said she has "learned everything" from movements such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Julian emphasized his roots in the Council of Canadians, of which he was executive director, and in the movement for disabled people.

Guy Caron tends to see social movements and party activism as a single continuum.  He frequently cites, in the same breath, the 2016 Quebec activist consultation “Faut qu’on se parle” (we have to talk), which took place in 163 kitchens around the province, and a grass-roots consultation conducted decades ago by the Manitoba NDP.

Angus takes a more personal tack and evokes his connection to young Indigenous activists such as the late Shannen Koostachin. Shannen was a teen-aged activist from Attawapiskat who fought for equal educational funding and opportunities for her people. She was killed in a traffic accident in 2010 but the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society carries on her work and honours her memory.

The moderators asked, incongruously, which taxes candidates would cut

Although the debate ranged widely, it virtually ignored a number of important areas of public policy. There were no questions on health care, foreign policy, defence, international development, municipal affairs, immigration and refugees, or cultural policy.

There were two questions on the key area of fiscal policy.

One asked all candidates which single tax they would eliminate – an odd concern for a party that has never sought to brand itself as tax cutting. 

Charlie Angus said it was unfair that Canadians have to start collecting and paying HST on earnings as low as $30,000 per year. Such a low threshold is an impediment to people struggling to start small businesses, Angus said.

Peter Julian echoed that concern when he advocated a reduction in the small business tax rate.

Niki Ashton, for her part, pushed back, and said she would prefer to focus not on tax cuts but on the need to raise the too-low corporate tax rate. 

The moderators also asked about balanced budgets versus deficits, harkening back to the party's 2015 campaign promise to balance the budget.

Peter Julian said there were good deficits and bad deficits. The current Liberals’ deficits are bad, he averred, because their spending priorities are wrong.

Niki Ashton argued the party had, in effect, tied its own hands in 2015 by promising a balanced budget, but she was the only one to so openly criticize the NDP’s 2015 campaign strategy.

Angus spoke, in general terms, about the need to be responsible in managing the taxpayers’ money; while Caron gave the classic progressive economist’s response that the budget should be balanced, but not necessarily each and every year. It should be balanced over the course of the “business cycle”, he said.

In the past, when NDPers made that same technical point, journalists would tend to scratch their heads.  Their befuddlement might have been justified. Economists do not agree on either the definition of a business cycle or how to determine and measure its duration.

Outgoing leader Tom Mulcair only got one mention. Guy Caron praised him for his principled opposition to the Harper government’s anti-terror bill, C-51. The Liberals voted for C-51 but promised to change it if they got elected.  So far, they have not got around to changing it, a fact all NDP leadership candidates emphatically noted.

The candidates also all argued they do not trust Trudeau to live up to his promise to decriminalize marijuana. They seemed to have jumped the gun there. According to a CBC report, almost at the same moment the NDP candidates were expressing their scepticism about the sincerity of Trudeau’s marijuana pledge, the Liberal leadership was briefing the caucus on the planned rollout of the new pot legislation, scheduled for early April.

Interestingly, neither the moderators nor any of the candidates made more than passing reference to one big promise Justin Trudeau did quite brazenly break: the promise on electoral reform. Is it possible they’ve received feedback most voters do not really care about electoral reform, if they have even heard of it?

As with the first debate, the candidates’ fluency, or lack thereof, in both official languages was on full, naked display.

Caron speaks English as a second language, but can comfortably, and even eloquently at times, talk, in his second language about everything from the finer details of economic policy to pineapple on pizza.

Julian and Ashton again showed off their impressive bilingual chops.

Charlie Angus, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate he has some way to go before he is ready for, say, an election-period federal leaders’ debate in French. 

Keep Karl on Parl

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