So now we know — as of last week’s first of six debates, all nine candidates wanting to lead the NDP are in “violent agreement” on expanding public and co-operative housing in Canada, on creating “green” jobs, and on tackling the shameful poverty in Attawapiskat.

Such consensus is no surprise, and much commentary on the first NDP leadership debate has stressed the lack of dramatic disagreement. But this kind of superficial reaction misses the underlying and quite serious questions raised by this set of exchanges on achieving an inclusive economy.

Let’s recognize, first, that NDP leaders do not themselves write NDP policy; the party remains far more of a policy-determining movement than either the Conservatives or the Liberals. So what matters in choosing a leader will be the sort of priorities amongst policies that she or he is likely to stress — and the coherence and depth with which a new leader will be able to deal with the policy areas that matter most.

Let’s also recognize, second, that the format of the first debate meant it did not provide in itself a satisfying answer to questions about priorities and depth of thinking. More detailed policy papers will be important to consult for fuller assessments.

But the debate did, in my view, underline three important points.

Maybe most dramatically, the NDP has become a serious believer in small business. Various of the candidates have solid small business credentials in their background, and almost all are articulating a fundamental bottom-up view of economic and social development that takes on the Conservative big business bias from a new and refreshing angle. Who expected this? Not me, despite the positive ties I had with small firms in my own constituency when I was an NDP member of Parliament.

Another crucial point is that there are major differences among candidates about Keynesian economics and economic stimulus. While Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash are stressing the need for major new public investments at a time of high unemployment (in green energy and in transportation, respectively,) Brian Topp draws on his experience in Saskatchewan to object to increases in the public debt for such initiatives. But it seems to me a major mistake not to realize there is more freedom to run deficits when needed at the federal level (given Bank of Canada’s ability to support public borrowing.)

There is a final point that strikes me about the debate. I was surprised at the low-key emotions of many of the candidates. Canada has an outrageously poor government at the moment. It has wasted millions on Huntsville gazebos and lied about it, attacked immigrant families, ignored bilingualism requirements for key jobs, and slandered a First Nations community to cover up its own failures; its environmental record is abysmal, its crime policies irrational, its secrecy and controls frightening.

The next NDP leader must galvanize Canadians against this government — and that will take a sense of energy and anger, as well as confidence and competence. In this first debate, various candidates looked at ease and showed the ability to explain ideas in a tight time frame. As we head down the road toward a choice in March, I shall be looking carefully for a Tommy Douglas or Rosemary Brown or Robert Cliche moment — where a leader combines passion and intellect to fight for change.

Steven Langdon served as federal NDP finance critic in the 1990-93 period; he was earlier an associate professor of Economics at Carleton University, and later associate professor of International Development at Trent University. He was a candidate for the federal NDP leadership in 1989.