Sunday, March 12, 2017
The NDP's leadership debate begins not with a bang but a miserable whimper
In a 90 minute session that you can watch at your leisure on CPAC, the four announced contestants in the NDP leadership campaign spent what turned out to be an almost unbearably slow session trying to say how much they loved each other and the NDP while making soaring rhetorical statements that were seldom backed up by policy.
Anyone hoping to hear any kind of real debate or contrition from four MPs who went along uncritically with the catastrophe that was the NDP's centrist campaign in 2015 would have had little to feel good about except for one brief moment.
Backed into the corner, as they are, of being insiders that enabled disaster they were unable to truly debate each other as one might have hoped as they had all been players in the same game.
As a result we were treated to an exceptionally tepid affair that failed to lay out any compelling vision of any coherence.
While this was the first of several debates, if this were the one that anyone potentially interested in renewing a membership or seeing serious self-criticism within the party watched they would have come away profoundly disappointed.
The sole slight exception was Niki Ashton who, briefly, admitted that the NDP had been outmaneuvered on the left by the Liberals in 2015 and called on them to collectively "be that left party" in one of the debate's very few highlights.
Admittedly the format was terrible and seemed designed to prevent any serious discord, something which the party always appears very keen to avoid in some bizarre unwillingness to be critical of powerful or leadership supporting colleagues who are, one might note, exceptionally well paid parliamentarians who really neither need nor deserve the kid gloves.
Guy Caron, as expected, was the policy wonk and tried to represent continuity. He, not entirely incorrectly, said that fighting inequality and climate change required a serious policy framework, but other than a pledge to fight for a basic income scheme he did not offer one. He did say that his vision of basic income would be different from that that many liberals and conservatives offer though he failed to say how outside of platitudes.
Caron also, in one of the debate's low moments, seemed to imply that the niqab debate in Quebec not only hurt the party (an absurd ongoing claim given that the Liberals took the same position) but that the position should be reexamined. When asked about expanding inclusion in the party he fumbled it terribly by saying of the NDP that it is "here you will find the answers to your problems" which is not just dismissive of the question but seems to imply that the lack of diversity in the NDP can be solved by people simply supporting the NDP!
Peter Julian spent much of the debate telling everyone how much he agreed with everyone else, which is sweet but hardly conducive to an interesting discourse. When he got around to saying anything real he was actually the only candidate that had a real policy framework however loosely drawn. He took the strongest stand against pipelines, was good on trade deals and generally came off as knowledgeable and also as a very likable person that you would love to have come in to guest teach your grade ten civics class.
Still. with shout outs to Rush and talk of driving through Quebec in a Lada he had brief moments where he might have connected with those of us whose hearts remain in 1988.
Charlie Angus tried very, very hard to play the "man of the people" card. He even spoke of going to the bar to watch hockey and having the bartender demanding of him "what happened to you guys" a carefully played nugget of "I am with the people" meaninglessness. One should not try too hard to connect with people too broadly, as the trying often highlights a lack of connection.
He was, however, willing to use the term working class and did so right at the very start. At moments he was also quite compelling to listen to.
At the same time he also framed trade agreements in very nationalist terms and pipelines in a way which seems calculated to appeal to a resource economy wing of workers. He seems to be placing himself in some alignment with the Alberta wing of the party on this front which will make his position problematic to Leap Manifesto supporters and environmentalists.
His low moment likely also came when asked about how the party might increase diversity when he replied "There are 3 principles for me...NDP" which, despite him attempting to draw a narrative around it was like with Caron was both dismissive of the question and mindlessly partisan in a way that one would expect but that is also disappointing.
Niki Ashton struck out from the left from her opening statement on but did so with a continually very nebulous notion of how she would get the country and party there.
She talked very forcefully of turning back the "neo-liberal agenda" and brought back her powerful slogan "You privatize it, we nationalize it. You deregulate it, we regulate it." She was at her strongest when she talked about the need to reconnect with the grassroots of the party and to look beyond winning the 2019 election and towards building a leftist party and movement. She was at her weakest when she came out against pipelines but in a sneaky and equivocal way that clearly implies that if she thought they were somehow environmentally acceptable and acceptable to indigenous people then they would be ok, which is either obfuscation or absurd as any pipeline of any length and meaning will never meet these criteria.
But while her performance was far stronger than in 2012 and had its moments, it was not as strong as might be needed for those who wonder why she did not distance herself from the fray earlier.
The pathetic unwillingness to seriously debate on the part of all candidates as if doing so will somehow be nasty made this both a boring and totally uncompelling affair if the NDP is truly trying to excite new people to join and vote. They might next also want to dispense with the lightweight "human interest questions" that ate up a lot of time with nonsense that was completely unenlightening.
Overall it was likely won by a small nose by Ashton vs Angus (her main competitor) and by Julian against Caron (his main competitor).
But it was exceedingly dull and uneventful and if the NDP and the leadership candidates actually want to engage people they had best kick it up a notch as this was an utterly sad start.
See also: Niki Ashton launches her campaign from the left as NDP race heats up
See also: New directions or continuity? -- The NDP leadership race begins in earnest