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First impressions: Brian Topp comes to Alberta

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NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp

Oddly enough, I don't think I've ever seen Brian Topp on TV. Not so as I'd have noticed, anyway -- him or any of the other candidates for the impossible job of filling Jack Layton's giant shoes.

If I had, I bet, I would have thought he was really tall.

Topp is not particularly tall, as it happens, and if you passed him on the street, you probably wouldn't give him a second look. Sort of an unprepossessing guy, at first glance. But when he turns it on -- whatever it is -- he can sure fill up the room!

Pierre Trudeau could do this, which is why a lot of Canadians who'd only seen him on television thought he was as big as his commanding presence. In reality, Trudeau was a pretty trim little guy -- still, he could sure keep your attention when you heard him speak, as I did a couple of times.

Joe Clark, on the other hand, came across as a little guy for some reason. Canadians who meet Clark are often astounded at how tall he is -- makes you do a double take every time. How could a guy so small be so tall?

I'm not comparing Topp to either of those two fellows, both of whom happened to be prime minister for a spell. I'm saying, though, that he has got something that makes you sit up and pay attention when he starts to speak. Whatever it is, it's more than just the fact that he's got a great answer for every question, and while he seems to stay pretty carefully in the NDP message box, it's the biggest damn message box I've ever encountered.

When Topp passed briefly through Edmonton yesterday, he demonstrated a quality possessed by all good actors -- the ability to make the audience suspend disbelief, so that an unprepossessing fellow with a bit of a pot belly actually turns before your eyes -- snap! -- into a much bigger presence on the stage.

I don't see anything in his biography that says Topp himself was actually ever an actor -- although as is well known he was the Executive Director of the Toronto Chapter of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. Maybe he picked something up from hanging around with those guys.

Not surprisingly, Topp's extemporaneous remarks and answers to the mostly friendly questions folks in the mostly NDP crowd threw at him had substance. I didn't hear anything I particularly disagreed with -- even on the few tough questions lobbed at him. But then, I doubt I'll disagree with much of anything that any of the candidates for the federal NDP leadership have to say. Right now they're preaching to a choir that I sing in.

The analysis I heard was bang on, and enjoyably pithy. On the Harper government's preference for exporting our jobs down a pipeline to Texas: "We get the smoke, they get the jobs." On Canada's massive tax breaks for corporations and the ultra wealthy: "There's no evidence all of that spending on that tax giveaway has created a single job." On the PM's scheme to prorogue Parliament when its members were about to vote non-confidence in his government: "The power to fire the House… a direct attack on responsible government at its root."

We've been drilled for 30 years with the dogma that you can't even think, let alone say such things aloud. All the while the goalposts kept moving to the right. Well, I think Topp has it right that Canadians are ready to embrace the idea of economic development in Canada for Canadians, fair taxation for the benefit of all and a sturdy defence of our democracy. Oh, and we should abolish the Senate, too.

That's supposed to be the substantial stuff. Ditto the facts of his resume: Speaks both official languages well, is proud of his union connections, has worked for unions or the NDP all across the country, has never been elected as an MP. But I'm not so sure about that. The medium, you know, is said to be the message, which is a smart-aleck professor's way of saying that sometimes it's actually the style that's the substance.

Look at Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a guy who's got no style and whose substance is, in Topp's words, "reckless, mindless, irresponsible."

Could Topp best Harper in a one-on-one debate? Without any doubt. Could Topp beat the prime minister in a three- or four-way debate with a sly old scrapper like interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae -- who also possesses that actor's ability to make the rest of a room stand still? Quite possibly.

Can he and the NDP withstand a full-blown campaign by the Tory slime machine and their media auxiliary? Well, that is another matter entirely, but at least there's evidence he can't be ruled out.

Look, I always go to these things ready to be disappointed, and I usually am. I'm too old a dog for the alter-call ever to work again -- in church or at an NDP meeting. But I was favourably impressed with Topp.

Am I ready to cast my ballot for him? Well, not quite yet. For one thing, I want to notice him and some of the other NDP candidates on the small screen first, and see what I think. Can he successfully bring his stage presence to the tube?

Moreover, since je suis condamné à parler la langue de Shakespeare, I want to know from someone who knows if he can do it all in French as well.

But whatever it is he's got, Topp's thoroughly professional political performance went a long way toward making a believer out of me during his short stopover in Edmonton last night.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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