Thomas Mulcair's event in Edmonton had the largest turnout of any of them so far (and the only candidates who haven't given a talk here are Singh and Saganash - it appears that neither of them will be making it). I don't know that it was the result of his popularity here, but likely do to the increased media hype around him over the past while. He is employing what seems like a smart strategy of portraying himself as the only candidate who can retain the NDP's stronghold in Quebec, a question that resonates with New Democrats across the country.
As much as retaining our seats in Quebec is immensely important, so is growing the party in other places. I love that Mulcair is setting his sights high on membership recruitment in Quebec because I think it's important for the entire party. I'm happy Mulcair is running in the same way that I was happy Robert Chisolm was running. Regional candidates focusing on their home bases and building the party there will benefit everyone no matter who is elected leader. I think Mulcair gave himself the "regional candidate" designation early in the campaign when he complained that he was at a disadvantage in the leadership race because the party hadn't done enough membership recruitment in Quebec. As true as that may be, if we process the implications of that statement, it was really Mulcair himself saying he didn't have much for support in the existing membership. That may be starting to change now that he is getting around the country to meet with members. However, he doesn't seem to be getting around the country nearly as much as some of the other candidates. I assume that's because he still sees his road to winning going primarily through Quebec.
Anyway, on to my experience at Mulcair's event. I had expected that the criticisms I had of Mulcair would be neatly covered up and that his visit would be nearly flawless. He is a seasoned politician, possibly more than any of the other candidates.
He started off impressively. His opening talk was good. He even paused for a second before talking about the "oilsands" and explained that his campaign team was hammering into his head that he was no longer to use the term "tar sands", which he used in the first televised leadership debate. It was one of the issues I mentioned in my last blog that put him at the bottom of my list (http://theleftistlens.blogspot.com/2012/01/my-rankings-and-thoughts-on-ndp.html).
But it was all downhill from there. Once he started taking questions from the audience, Mulcair the Grizzly Bear came out. There were a couple of questioners, one a youth and one not, who asked Mulcair about what he thought about state ownership, citing examples from the days of party giants Tommy Douglas and David Lewis. He told the questioners (I'm paraphrasing now) that they were delusional if they thought the NDP could become government while espousing a traditional leftist ideology that included expansion of state ownership of resources or industries. He said if people want to go back to being a party with 9 seats like we did under Broadbent, Douglas, and Lewis, they can start their own party. And it wasn't even the substance of Mulcair's response that put me off. He could have given an answer with the same substance but completely changed the rhetoric, and I would have found it acceptable. However, the disrespect he showed not only to the questioners, but also to the historical giants of our party, was appalling. The NDP is a party where many of its most active members, both young and old, have a deep attachment to its history and party icons. We have a rich tradition of advancing social democratic values in Canada. Sure, we express those very differently than we did 30, 40, or 50 years ago, and most of us are okay with that. But we have a HUGE respect for our leaders, going back to the CCF leaders J. S. Woodsworth and M. J. Coldwell, and carrying through the NDP years with Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, and of course, Jack Layton. I wish there was video people could see so everyone could get an accurate first-hand view of what was said, but unfortunately I don't think any exists. However, I am one of many who felt the same way coming out of the event (another explanation of the event has been written by Lou Arab, who was the head of the Alberta section of the 2011 election campaign for the NDP; it can be read here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10151130586060082).
Another statement Mulcair made that turned many members off was in response to a question about how high of a priority proportional representation would be for him if he became Prime Minister. His response was that implementing proportional representation would require a constitutional amendment and therefore would be virtually impossible. Many in the audience were shocked. None of us had ever heard anyone take that view. Even a fellow staffer, who also is a National Council member of Fair Vote Canada, found it "bizarre". I was even more confused when I started to hear reports from Eastern Canada a couple weeks later that Mulcair was talking about proportional representation as a top priority for him. Whatever his real story is on PR, it doesn't look good.
My last point on Mulcair is about his stance on Israel-Palestine. He is the least popular of any of the candidates on this topic for reasons I detailed in my previous post. I wanted to ask him a question in a way that I could get a straight answer, so I chose to ask it in a very clear way. I asked him how Canada should vote when the Palestinians statehood bid comes up in the UN, as it soon will. He began his answer by stating, almost verbatim, the official NDP policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said he agreed with that position (found here in section 6.3: http://www.ndp.ca/platform/leadership-on-world-stage). That was all. I spoke up and told him he didn't answer my question about how Canada should vote on the Palestinian statehood bid. He repeated that he agreed with the official NDP position on Israel-Palestine. The response was akin to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toR3Tt9fS2E&t=4m42s. I wanted a simple answer: yes or no (or abstain, I suppose). No other candidate has refused to answer my questions. On this specific question, Paul Dewar, Niki Ashton, and Brian Topp have all said very clearly that Canada should vote "yes" on the statehood bid. I would have had a lot more respect for Mulcair if he had answered the question, even if I disagreed with his answer.
In conclusion, I'm sure no one is surprised after this experience that Thomas Mulcair is still last on my list. He is BY FAR, in my view, the most divisive candidate in the race. I won't be surprised if he gets a lot of first ballot votes but far fewer than others on subsequent ballots.
Niki Ashton's event was much less polarizing. There were few disagreements in the crowd. Coming only a few days after Mulcair's visit, it was refreshing to have a visitor who didn't offend anyone. This blog is getting a bit long, so I'm not going to write extensive thoughts about Ashton's visit, but I will certainly do that in another post if people are curious (let me know). I will, however, offer some brief thoughts and impressions.
Ashton seems to know the issues as well as many of the other candidates. For a candidate who is only 29 years old (she's only a year and a half older than me!), she was VERY impressive. Her opening talk was very articulate. I feel like she has her priorities right with her focus on how the focus for the NDP needs to be on a fair economy. She handed out a 10-point (if I remember right) plan on how we can achieve that.
When she was answering questions, she tended not to answer them very directly, which I know put some people off. It wasn't so much that you didn't get an answer to your question. It was more that she explained everything in kind of a round-about way. She was also quite a bit less articulate when answering questions than she was in her speech. Either way, I think her core principles, her policy depth, and her passion are all huge assets to the party. If she needs to brush up on the way she delivers a message, that can come through further training. She impressed me enough to stay at number two on my list.
I'm not going to go into much more than I have previously on Dewar. I laid out my thoughts pretty thoroughly in my last blog. Dewar stopped in Edmonton again recently to make a policy announcement on clean energy and to announce an endorsement from Alberta's only opposition MP, Linda Duncan (announcement here: http://pauldewar.ca/content/linda-duncan-albertas-only-opposition-mp-endorses-dewar-leader-ndp). The visit included an afternoon meet and greet event with both Dewar and Duncan hosted by the University of Alberta Campus NDP, which I attended.
The visit was what I've come to expect from Dewar. He is very comfortable fielding questions of all sorts. He was even asked a similar question by the same person Mulcair had rudely dismissed, so no one can say the other candidates would have handled it in the same way. Although Dewar didn't completely agree with the questioner, he treated him with respect. I heard the next day that the questioner has decided to support Dewar. After a more formal Q & A session with the whole room listening, the end of the official event was announced, and Dewar sat down around a table with about 10 very engaged people for a discussion for 20 minutes or more before heading out.
This was Dewar's third visit to Edmonton since the leadership campaign started - more than any other candidate so far. It's no accident that the Ontario MP feels like the most Albertan of all the candidates (at least in my view). He was paying visits to Edmonton long before the leadership race when Jack Layton was still leader. When I was leading the U of A Campus NDP in the fall of 2010, we hosted him for a large public event on foreign affairs. A year or two ago, he was in town again as the guest speaker at an event in support of Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason. Both times, he met with a number of civil society organizations in the city. He spent time building our grassroots in Edmonton well before he was running for leadership of the party.
What was more significant than what was said at the event itself was the endorsement. There are currently only three elected NDP politicians in Alberta: MP Linda Duncan, and MLAs Rachel Notley and Brian Mason. Notley and Mason are both going to stay neutral in the federal leadership race at least until after Alberta's election is over. It looks almost certain now that election day will be after the leadership race is over. That means Duncan is the only elected New Democrat in Alberta who will be endorsing anyone. I've already heard from a number of fellow members that Duncan's endorsement has swayed their vote to Dewar. It will certainly be a powerful tool for Dewar volunteers to use when trying to convince other Alberta members to vote for him.
That's about all I have to say for now. Perhaps I'll do another post after we've seen another leadership debate or two. I didn't watch the Toronto debate the other night, but I'll definitely be watching the one next weekend, and the rest of the official debates. Please feel free to give me more feedback!