Unless you’re bringing your own celebrity or scandal with you, it’s a tough climb to make a name for yourself in Canadian political leadership races. While the first round of voting won’t start until September, four NDP hopefuls met this past Sunday in Ottawa to take part in the party’s first debate. Granted, both because it’s so early and because quite a few other rumoured hopefuls have yet to throw their hats (or turbans, re: Jagmeet Singh) into the ring, the debate itself was more of a free microphone opportunity to lay out the introduction to their agenda and campaign message rather than fight amongst each other.
Going in order of names you might recognize we’ll start with Niki Ashton, the 34-year-old MP for Churchill—Keewatinook in Manitoba, who last year gained a certain amount of exposure when she describe “elbowgate” as traumatizing and likened it to assault and violence against women. However, while that might be some baggage she’ll look to drop (I would) she also has a solid history of committee and critic experience in the House of Commons and a strong academic background.
She opened the debate by describing herself as “a democratic socialist [and] intersectional eco-feminist” with a platform based on curbing climate change, wealth inequality, and nationalizing services and industries. While her youth, energy, and strong leftist language might be an asset, I can also see the phrase “intersectional eco-feminist” giving people pause until they see what it brings in action or whether it’s just a messaging choice by her campaign. She believes in public and social ownership helping society, bringing in grassroots activists, making the party proud and vocal in its left politics, and was a critic of the Liberals lack of follow through on promises. Overall she gave a great progressive performance that will be popular with the younger generation (she was a standout for me), however, I wasn’t sold both on her opposition to free trade (which as someone who’s not an economist I think should still be approached with nuance and not posturing) or her ability to explain her labels, politics, and activism to an older generation.
Charlie Angus is a 54-year-old former punk rocker (the band L’Etranger also featured former NDP MP Andrew Cash) and current MP for Timmins—James Bay in Ontario. He described himself as having a pragmatic vision, and is rooted in a very working-class, labour-focused platform in his messaging and key issues. Wealth inequality, good jobs, strong social services, and leadership abroad (particularly when it comes to Trump and negotiations of NAFTA) and against corporations are important to him. While he may have had fewer specific policy plans than his opponents, Charlie Angus definitely had the most charisma and charm in the room. He was funny, frank, and likeable, at one point promising to bring the fun back to “the party.” Considering how often Jack Layton was name dropped by all of the candidates, and his own pointed story of disappointment in their last federal campaign (with no mention of Mulcair), he will be someone to watch out for as out of the four current candidates he’s the only one with Layton’s stage presence, which in a campaign can be just as important as policy.
Guy Caron, the 48-year-old MP Rimouski-Neigette—Temiscouata—Les Basques and an economist, used this opportunity to drill into the audience not only his specific platform agenda and expertise, but also his past relationship working for Jack Layton, whose legacy and vision he wants to implement. If you are going to associate Guy Caron with only two words, he’d love it if those were “basic income.” This probably wasn’t the arena for him to elaborate on how it will fit into existing social services support or to cite ongoing studies and practical applications, but he at least put a proposal forward that was unique and not a strained rephrasing of wealth inequality and climate change.
Guy gave two of the most impressive answers that really stuck out for me during the debate, and ones that make me hope that regardless of outcome he has a role to play in the party going forward. The first, in a question about balancing a resource-based economy against the environment, he took a step (that is divisive in the party itself) by praising the work being done by the Alberta NDP who supported pipelines as a way to reinvest, transition into, and diversify support for a green economy and retraining. This is probably the closest to my own view on the matter, as pragmatic as it is, because as it stands only political will or money will see these transitions happen, and I don’t think the political will is there when so many people are struggling to find jobs and secure housing. The other answer I liked was when he didn’t outright dismiss free trade agreements as anti-worker (which works as a populist message, but so would blaming robots), and instead focused on renegotiating NAFTA to emphasize respect for human rights, workers, and the environment in addition to reciprocity and access that is fair for everyone involved. Based on what I’ve heard from him, while he might come off as a policy wonk, he at least has a vision for the party, platform, and country that is thinking well past just the next election.
And lastly, Peter Julian, the 54-year-old MP for New Westminster—Burnaby. With a background in community activism, working-class history, and his work with the party since 2004, Julian is a strong choice on paper and might receive a lot of support from westerners considering the leadership raced is based on one member, one vote and not riding. However, out of everyone on stage he made the weakest impression, and during some of his long-winded answers was unable to engage the audience and, in fact, was draining some of the energy out of the room. Think a nicer Stephen Harper with a heart. Unlike Caron, he is against the western pipelines, but for the most part half of his answers started with the phrase “I agree with [my opponent],” which is not a strong first impression for someone vying for leadership. Conciliatory is good in team building and leadership, but it leaves the door open for everyone else to run with the issues when it’s done on a stage and in front of cameras. In one of his few outbursts of energy, when asked about how he would work with Trump, he said he didn’t believe Trump would be around by the time he was elected and took a pretty firm stance against the president. I hate Trump too, but I feel like he could have handled that without coming off either as pandering or unprofessional. While this might not have been the best showing for Julian, I’m going to keep an ear open going forward for his leadership in regional interests for our province and how he’s going to adapt to the changing landscape of the race.
Overall, this debate was much easier to watch than the Conservative race not only because of my politics but because they have around eight less candidates that I would have to Google. It was quiet, and definitely didn’t sate my blood lust, but I look forward to the months ahead to see how these candidates really draw the lines and offer different visions for the next federal election