Dr. Dawg

NDP leadership: Debate 1

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NDP contenders.jpg

The purpose of leadership debates is winnowing, at least among the party faithful. It’s not so much specific debating points made but over-all impressions that will move the rank and file. Tonight, for the first time, we saw all nine candidates put their best feet forward. And already we can narrow the field down to three front-runners.

Robert Chisholm is eliminated in the first round. He was honest about his utter lack of French, but that’s a fatal flaw in a candidate for leadership of a national party with a huge Quebec caucus.

Martin Singh traded on his experience in the pharmaceutical industry, but was stilted and unconvincing.

The soft-spoken and dignified Romeo Saganash has experience in the small business sector. He seemed somewhat ill at ease, but there’s a lot riding on these debates. Nevertheless, he comes across as second-rank in terms of articulating policy and bold vision.

Regretfully, I must note that my friend Peggy Nash did not do well this afternoon. Her talking points seemed rehearsed. There was very little new or original, even if I agreed with everything she was saying. I rather enjoy it when folks go off-message a bit, do a little ad-libbing, say things in a new way. There was nothing of that in her tame responses to the questions asked.

If you can ignore Nathan Cullen’s Michele Bachmann eyes, he was articulate, professional and coherent, and spoke pretty good French. He had a couple of good zingers, too: suggesting, for example, that Stephen Harper is trying to solve the housing crisis by building more prisons. But (and I hasten to add I’m speaking comparatively) I didn’t get a sense of depth in his comments. Nevertheless, he did well.

Niki Ashton was a complete surprise. She was poised, confident, very well-prepared and spoke good French. When the nine candidates were mischievously asked whom they would support as their second choice, two of the four who actually answered the question (Brian Topp and Peggy Nash) chose her. If there were criticisms to be made, I’d say her relative inexperience showed at times—harping on the “new politics” theme, for example, without really getting across what she meant—and she was rather too earnest. But this is a person to watch.

This brings us to the three people whom I consider to be leading the pack.

To be blunt, Brian Topp did not impress me. He knew his stuff, and he should, given his years of back-room involvement in the party, but he was colourless, with all the charisma of a grazing sheep. He was precisely what one might expect a seasoned party operative to be: articulate, always on message—and almost unemotional. He had an irritating habit of cocking his head to the right, which made him look a tad arrogant. And I will admit that his constant emphasis on fiscal responsibility irked me, not because I don’t believe in it, but because he was too obviously over-trying to brand himself as sober, reliable and practical. And in a leader I want passion, dammit, not merely administrative competence.

That leaves Tom Mulcair and Paul Dewar. Full disclosure: I like Paul, and always have. He’s my MP and my friend, and I was pleased when he entered the leadership race. So folks might wish to take what I say with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be fair and balanced (in the non-Fox sense) in giving my impression of each of them.

Mulcair was good. He was polished, knew his stuff, spoke excellent French, and didn’t lose his temper once. But I found him off-puttingly slick. And I didn’t appreciate his invocations of Jack Layton, as though he was the heir apparent (“Jack’s priority and my priority too…”). His pitch about progressive pragmatism and reaching out beyond the traditional base, not to mention his reference to being Minister of the Environment in Quebec without mentioning that this was as a Liberal, sent all the wrong signals, at least to me.

Brian Topp (who also invoked Jack) might have been sending a shot Mulcair’s way when he stated at the start of the debate that a leader of the NDP needs to go beyond managing the status quo—“that’s what the Liberals are for.” I received no impression from Mulcair that he is either a man of vision or progressive principle, but, rather, a dynamic centrist who would rather attract votes than push the envelope.

Paul Dewar managed in the few minutes he had to articulate a comprehensive jobs plan, propose fixing our crumbling international reputation, advocate detailed energy and environmental policies, and insist that something be done about Attawapiskat and other struggling Native communities, including revenue-sharing with the First Nations. He advanced his own triple-E programme: environment, energy and economy are his priorities, and he stayed close to these themes.

Topp attempted to throw him off at one point by challenging him on the GST. Dewar was having none of it, and coolly stayed on topic.

If a little stiff (he’s normally more relaxed and happy, and I think we’ll see the return of that in the ensuing debates), Dewar still came across as personable and warm. He has an approach and a vision supplemented by solid knowledge and experience. And his French, which it must be said was less polished than that of several other candidates, has progressed astonishingly well over the past few weeks. He had promised when he threw his hat in the ring that he would be fluent in the language as party leader, and I for one believe he’ll keep his word.

Reader feedback is more than welcome, particularly from those who watched the show.

UPDATE: Reader “sad but true” notes the curious omission of Martin Singh from the Star photo above. I should have looked at it more carefully. Here we go, and apologies to Mr. Singh.


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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on December 4, 2011 7:50 PM.

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