ndp leader candidates

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NDP organizers seemed almost giddy Sunday afternoon at the success of the de-facto launch of the party’s leadership race, the first candidates’ debate, at a downtown Ottawa hotel.

More than a 1,000 people attended, many young. Their evident enthusiasm indicated they thought it worth braving Ottawa’s wicked wind chill to be there. One person who attended rated the four candidates in this way:

  1. Guy Caron, because of his substantive ideas, candid way of expressing himself in both languages, and surprising flashes of humour;
  2. Niki Ashton, because of her poise and clear commitment to a progressive vision (with the caveat traditional working class NDP voters in Hamilton or Windsor might not relate to Ashton’s talk of such matters as intersectionality);
  3. Peter Julian, for his solid, if somewhat too-earnest-by-half, grasp of the issues; and
  4. Charlie Angus, who came in last mostly because his French seemed, to this debate watcher, a bit on the dubious side. The northern Ontario MP did get points for folksy charm, even if some thought he might have laid it on a bit thick at times.

Others thought all candidates acquitted themselves well, and none were either winners or losers. As one observer who has watched many NDP leadership debates over the decades put it: “Overall, I am unable to rank them with much confidence and am frankly impressed by the field.”

Guy Caron, who normally seems like a fairly serious economist, got the biggest laugh when he said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be quoting another Justin named Bieber during the next election campaign: “Is it too late to say sorry?” The Stratford, Ontario, popstar’s song continues: “… Yeah, I know that I let you down …”

The NDP candidates all took the unequivocal position that Trudeau has, indeed, let down the voters, that he used the time honoured Liberal tactic of campaigning from the left only to shift rightward once in office. Peter Julian was speaking for them all when he said Trudeau is not a real progressive; he merely “plays one on TV.”

But all candidates showed signs of understanding their party will have to do more than attack the current Prime Minister if it hopes to make significant inroads next time.

Harkening to the party’s history, kitchen tables and social movements

Julian is the candidate most likely to evoke NDP tradition – and that of the CCF that preceded it. He is fond of pointing out he occupies the office in Parliament’s Centre Block that once belonged to Tommy Douglas; and he talks about how it took courage for the party, historically, to advocate policies that were neither fashionable nor popular at the time. Julian cites extending the franchise to Indigenous people, public pensions, and universal health care. Without the NDP and CCF before it, Julian says, Canada would be a meaner, less compassionate, less equal and less fair country. 

Ashton unabashedly portrays herself as the candidate of young, marginalized and racialized Canadians. She is the only candidate to make consistent use of the language of social movements, such as Black Lives Matter. Her mission echoes the New Politics Initiative (NPI), founded in 2001, and supported by folks such as Judy Rebick, on the social movement side, and Libby Davies, from the parliamentary party.  The aim of the NPI was to bring the NDP closer to feminist, Indigenous, environmental and other grass roots organizations. The party of the left cannot succeed, NPI supporters argued, without the energy and commitment of community level activists. Ashton makes a similar case today, while being careful to avoid giving the impression she wants to create a left splinter faction in the party.

Charlie Angus sees the current task to be one of re-engaging with working class Canadians over their kitchen tables. Journalists have asked him if he sees himself as a sort of northern Bernie Sanders, but they have it wrong. In truth, Angus is trying to channel Jack Layton, whose name he mentions frequently, not the Senator from Vermont. Like Layton, Angus has more faith in the power of optimism and empathy than in ideology.

When asked if he considers himself to be “on the left” Angus answered: “I failed ideology 101.” Folksiness is Charlie Angus’ calling card. He evoked his grandmother in his closing remarks – she told him New Democrats were the only ones who would stand up for working people when the chips were down – and made a point of saying he wanted to put the “party” back into the Party. Fun is an important part of who we are, the onetime punk rocker said.

Guy Caron points out that all candidates have very similar goals. They all agree on what they want to achieve. They might differ, however, on how they want to achieve it. Caron cites his guaranteed annual income proposal as an example. The Rimouski MP believes such a measure would be a powerful weapon in the fight against growing inequality. Not the only weapon, he hastens to add, but one that would be worth trying.

As for the lessons of the disappointing 2015 election, only Caron brought up what, in Quebec, they call “la question identitaire” – meaning, in this case, the Niqab debate. It was not entirely clear what Caron would have done differently from Tom Mulcair, when one woman’s demand that she be allowed to wear a Niqab while swearing an oath of citizenship became a toxic election issue in Quebec. Caron seemed to be saying he agreed, substantively, with the party’s position on the Niqab – i.e., that it was within a person’s rights to wear it, if she so chose – but believed the NDP could have communicated its position more effectively during the last campaign. In particular, Caron said the party should have framed its stance with more “empathy” – but empathy for whom? That was not at all clear.

We will no doubt be hearing a lot more about this, and other issues, in the weeks and months to come. We have eight months to go before the party choses a new leader. 

Peter Julian’s comment regarding Justin Trudeau playing a progressive on TV was originally misattributed to Charlie Angus. Correction made on March 14, 2017.

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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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...