NDP leadership candidates must present concrete and bold ideas at Sunday's debut debate

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The NDP leadership race gets going in earnest this weekend, with its first candidates' debate. It will take place at Ottawa’s Delta Hotel, on Sunday afternoon, at 2:00 p.m. EDT.

All four declared candidates will take part in this bilingual event. They are all federal MPs with significant experience and they come from diverse regions of the country.

Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus both represent northern ridings. Ashton's, in Manitoba, borders on Hudson's Bay; Angus's, in Ontario, on James Bay. The North has been part of the NDP's electoral base for a long time, going back to before there was an NDP, and the party was called the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation).

Peter Julian has been an MP for Burnaby-New Westminster for more than a decade in a province, British Columbia, that has also been key to the NDP’s electoral success for many years.

Guy Caron represents a relatively new piece of NDP core support: Quebec. Before 2011, the party had never won more than one seat at a time in Quebec, and that happened rarely. Then came the Orange Wave, when the party swept the province. The 16 seats the party won last time were a big come-down from its previous success, but they represent a solid foothold. Caron won his Rimouski riding, in eastern Quebec, for the first time in 2011 and actually increased his margin of victory in 2015, while so many of his fellow Quebec NDP MPs lost. Caron's second victory testifies to his effectiveness as an MP.

In 2012, the last time the party chose a leader, the stage was crowded. A number of sitting MPs -- including Peggy Nash, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar and, of course, Tom Mulcair -- sought to don the late Jack Layton's mantle, as did non-MPs Martin Singh and party establishment favourite Brian Topp.

Dewar lost a close race for his Ottawa seat in 2015 and so did Nash, as did all other NDP MPs from Toronto. Cullen, who is still a prominent member of the NDP federal caucus, and Topp, who has continued to be active in the NDP backrooms, most notably in Alberta, both demurred on leadership bids this time, although, officially, it is not too late to enter.

Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh is still considering a run, as is unilingual union leader Sid Ryan.

The "progressive" bloom is not yet off the Trudeau rose

In 2012, on the eve of the first leadership debate, Cullen said voters might find the candidates to be in "violent agreement." The task, back then, was to take the helm of the official opposition party and make a credible case to replace the Harper Conservatives in government.

This time, the challenge is quite different. The leadership candidates must establish an identity and raison d’être for the party of the left, at a time when the Liberals' Justin Trudeau continues, with some success, to portray himself as the champion of progressivism in Canada.

NDPers will argue that Trudeau is more about flash and image than substance, and that he and his party have fallen short on many of their promises.

They can say that the Liberals have failed to deliver on First Nations' concrete needs such as control of natural resources and education; that they approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline based on the Harper government's flawed process after having promised to institute a new and more robust one; and that the Liberals' much-touted middle-class tax cut mostly benefits affluent Canadians with incomes in the 90,000 to 200,000 range. Plus, of course, NDPers can rightly point out that Trudeau flagrantly betrayed his oft-repeated promise that the 2015 election would the "last held under first-past-the-post."

That is all true.

Nonetheless, most who voted for Trudeau last time do not (yet) see him as merely Harper-lite. When the current prime minister declares himself to be a feminist, for example, some scoff, and say those are mere words. But when Trudeau's government invests significant dollars in maternal and women's sexual health, including support for abortion and contraception, while the Americans are doing exactly the opposite -- well, that is not something Harper would ever have done.

Similarly, while Trudeau, like the NDP Premier of Alberta, has a soft spot for pipelines, he has also instituted what is, in effect, a national carbon tax. Since taking power in 2015, Justin Trudeau's government has raised taxes on upper-income earners, expanded the Canada Pension Plan, reinstituted health care for refugees (while taking in thousands more refugees that the previous government would have), and put at least some (conditional) health-care money on the table for the provinces.  None of those are Harper, or even Harper-lite, policies.

The challenge will be to present credible policy proposals

The NDP leadership candidates know that making exaggerated claims about Trudeau being a right-wing wolf in progressive sheep’s clothing will ring hollow with a great many voters, however disappointed some may be. For a great many Canadians, the bloom is not yet off the Liberal rose; and if the traditional party of the left in Canada is to establish its relevance, it will have to come up with tangible and bold policy ideas that demarcate it on the political map.

Guy Caron has pushed the idea of a guaranteed annual income, although that is a notion that has appealed as much to moderate conservatives as it has to social democrats, over the years. Until Caron picked up the idea, its chief champion in Canada was one-time Conservative senator Hugh Segal.

Peter Julian wants to stop all pipelines that might carry tar sands bitumen, but that is an idea significant elements in the party will oppose. Charlie Angus has already intimated that he is not exactly onside with Julian’s position. It will be interesting to hear what the other candidates have to say.

Julian also proposes free post-secondary tuition, an idea that is likely to sow less division among New Democrats than the one on pipelines. The devil is in the details, of course. Education is entirely a provincial responsibility and it would be interesting to hear from Julian how he would get the provinces onside with his tuition proposal.

Ashton aspires to move the party to the left, but aside from pledging to attack inequality, has not been very specific about what that means. On Sunday, she will have a chance to provide details. For his part, Angus says he will unveil detailed policy proposals after he has had a chance to consult the party's grassroots. That stance will not take him very far in a debate.  He will have to put some policy ideas on the table.

In addition, for Angus, Sunday's debate will be something of a test of his French language ability. He is the only one of the four declared candidates who is not fluently bilingual. The other three have proven their mettle in the House and in scrums, where they have shown that they are comfortable in both official languages. Angus has not done that -- yet. He says he has, of late, been working on his French. We'll see how far he has come on Sunday.  Stay tuned. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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