With the withdrawal of Peter Julian from the NDP leadership race the remaining candidates met for the fifth official debate (there was one "unofficial" one held in Toronto) Tuesday night in Saskatoon. While for the most part it was a fairly tepid affair (perhaps due to the reversion to the bizarre format that does not allow applause or audience feedback until the very end) it did have some lively moments notably when both Charlie Angus and Guy Caron sparred with Jagmeet Singh over the 'universality' of Old Age Security.
This was certainly a moment where some very real division emerged as Angus rather combatively and directly questioned what he saw as Singh's abandonment of the NDP's commitment to the principle of universality for social programs like OAS which Singh wants to see made means-tested to focus benefits more towards those who most need them. Singh, whatever one thinks of his position, certainly held his own by telling Angus that he needed to "do his research" as OAS is already means-tested to a degree as it is clawed back on those who make over $70,000 a year. He also said he found it "offensive" that millionaires would receive benefits that poorer and middle-class seniors need so much more. Caron countered that while OAS was not universal it should be and that the principle of universality was an important one that the NDP has fought for and that is party policy.
It was a memorable exchange.
Otherwise there was not much that was new in terms of differentiating the candidates other than rhetorical and policy lines that had been drawn before.
Angus, in fact, had a very strong night overall. He reflected the populist "person of the people" image he has been striving for more effectively than he has to date. He easily had the line of the night early on when he said of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's opposition to a national carbon price that he was like "the man violently defending the future of the typewriter when everyone else has moved to cellphones."
He was also very effective when he spoke of the need for a housing strategy that would put billions of dollars to better use than Liberal "rubber duckies" and military interventions, with lines like how he would not "carry the plates for the Liberal dinner" when talking of a potential future NDP-Liberal minority government, and had his most humanizing moment of the debates so far when he spoke passionately of how he faced excommunication and threats from the pulpit when he stood up for marriage equality rights in spite of his faith and how he would always stand for secular, civil rights principles.
Singh also had a solid outing and not just when he defended against Angus. He presented himself as the "growth" candidate while talking about the need for strong principles to achieve real results on issues like poverty. Even when playing the old pragmatist card about how it really was about getting power he did so eloquently. He also very forcefully spoke to the consequences of systemic racism in policing, something that he noted he alone of the candidates understood first hand.
While Ashton did not have the night she did in Toronto she was was still focused and very well-spoken with no real missteps, though her evoking of Manitoba as an example of principles leading to power may not have been the wisest one given the rather lackluster and ineffective record of the provincial NDP government there achieving anything remotely akin to fundamental change of the kind she has sought to embrace.
She did, however, stay on her message of the need for a shift to the left both within the party and society more broadly, speaking of how she wants to create a politics to believe in, see a "socialist vision in our country" and build an NDP that "does not seek power for its own sake but to change Canada and the world". Ashton was also willing to speak in strong terms about how religious beliefs have, at times, been used to marginalize and oppress people.
Caron had the fewest highlights perhaps in part due to his singular fixation on the policy plank of a basic income that does often leave him sounding one note. In fact, Ashton hit back well on this policy fixation during an exchange in which she noted that basic income is in itself not a policy solution to the problem of precarious work (which it is not). He did have a couple of moments though as when he challenged Angus in French on how Angus would work to recapture the NDP's 2011 strength in Quebec (intentionally or otherwise highlighting Angus' relatively poor French) or when he told the audience "don't let the socks fools you" calling out Trudeau as a "Bay St., big business lackey", a point as well stated as it is true.
The next debate is August 2 in Victoria.
You can watch a recording of the debate on CPAC.
See also: Ashton strong in lively Toronto NDP leadership debate
See also: Fourth NDP leadership debate sees some actual debate bucking the tedious trend