Sorry it has been forever since I have written on this blog. I have been quite busy over the past while and also haven’t found enough motivation to write on here. I do intend to write more in the new year (I suppose I could call that a resolution, huh?). I’ve noticed in the past that people seem to really like my posts on religion and politics, so I’ll look to explore that more in the future. Please send me any suggestions for what you’d like me to cover, and I’ll take them into consideration.
I have been asked a number of times since the beginning of the federal NDP leadership race to give my thoughts on the various candidates. I have attempted to do that a few times, but Facebook comments and Twitter are not as conducive to fully explaining thoughts as is sometimes necessary.
First, I will go through each of the candidates and explain my impression of them. I do have a current ranking in mind that represents how I would vote if the leadership convention were held today. That said, my rankings are not final and will likely shift before March 24th. I hope to actually be at the leadership convention in Toronto at the end of March, but that depends on whether or not we’re in the middle of an election here in Alberta at the time (damn you, Premier Redford, for not picking a fixed election date!). Second, I will elaborate on what I have said in my explanations of my rankings by giving some thoughts generally on what we are or should be looking for, in my opinion, when we are choosing the next leader. If there are areas I fail to cover in this post or points that are not clear, please let me know, and I will do my best to fill those areas in.
I also want to say before I start that I’m going to be very candid in this post. While I don’t think we, as a party, want the leadership race to be divisive, we do need to talk about the differences between the candidates if we’re going to choose the best leader. I hope I don’t offend anyone with my criticisms. That is not my intention. I think all of these candidates are or will make great MPs and/or cabinet ministers. I also want to say that I’ve been making my best effort to see each of the candidates as they come to Edmonton for the Edmonton-Strathcona NDP’s “Kitchen Table Talks” series. So far I’ve made it to the talks with Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Robert Chisolm, and Brian Topp. Unfortunately, I missed the one with Peggy Nash. I’ll be attending the talks with Thomas Mulcair (event here: http://www.facebook.com/events/353200658030089/) and Niki Ashton (event here: http://www.facebook.com/events/260405770688407/) in the coming week or so and hopefully to Romeo Saganash and Martin Singh once they’re confirmed. Happy reading!
I will start my rankings from last to first, since I think it’s easier for me to talk about my top pick while contrasting him with the others.
8. Thomas Mulcair
Mulcair is one of two candidates at the bottom of my list because there are things about him that make me believe his leadership of the party would be disastrous. He is the only candidate who would cause me to question my party affiliation if he were leader of the party. For some New Democrats, it is enough that he was once a Liberal for him to be placed at the bottom of their lists. For me, that isn’t a factor. As a former Liberal myself, I can’t level that criticism at anyone. I do think we should be welcoming former Liberals into our party.
There are a number of other things that put Mulcair firmly at the bottom of my list. The first is the way he treated NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies after she was caught in a “gotcha” interview speaking in favour of boycotts of Israel and saying the occupation of Palestine goes back to 1948. Instead of treating Davies like a fellow party member, Mulcair decided to publicly denounce her. I have been told on at least one occasion by a federal party insider that Mulcair is one of the reasons why the NDP has such a nuanced position on Israel-Palestine. A Google search of “Mulcair Israel” will bring up many of the concerns about his position on the conflict. His public denunciation of Davies was not his only divisive statement in the media. Since before he formally entered the leadership race, he has repeatedly made unnecessary public statements complaining either about the party generally (low membership levels in Quebec, union ties) or specific candidates (his ongoing public questioning of the character of fellow candidate Brian Topp).
Lastly, Mulcair’s inability to understand Alberta or to make the province a priority (not sure if it’s one of those or both) cements his position in last place for me. Although it seems like he’s getting better, Mulcair was still calling Alberta’s oilsands the “tar sands” when he got to the first official NDP leadership debate. I’ll never forget the day in the 2011 election campaign that Jack Layton uttered those two words in Montreal during a policy announcement on the environment. It set off a storm across Alberta, most acutely for the NDP in the campaign offices for Edmonton-Strathcona, Edmonton East, and Edmonton Centre. After a few days of damage control, we did manage to get back on our game, but it was an unnecessary mistake. Mulcair seems not to have learned from it. He seems to be developing a little better understanding of policy when it comes to the oilsands, but he has already isolated himself in the minds of many Albertans because of his statement in the first debate. It’ll be interesting to see if he speaks any differently when he arrives in Edmonton on Friday.
In sum, the problem with Mulcair is that there are too many problems with Mulcair, and these are not major problems. An NDP under his leadership will not be a united NDP, and I think it’s difficult to argue with that. A Mulcair win would divide the party. Either the face of the party would change to the point where it is no longer recognizable, or it would simply fade into irrelevance as many of those who supported Jack Layton’s NDP look for other alternatives.
7. Nathan Cullen
I had a good conversation with Nathan Cullen very shortly after he announced he was running for leader. He, along with all the other candidates declared at the time, visited Edmonton for the Alberta NDP’s annual Leader’s Levee fundraiser. I was extremely impressed with him. A few of my fellow Alberta New Democrat activists had already declared their support for him. He listened intently as a couple of us explained to him how sensitive an issue the oilsands is for Albertans of all political stripes. At that point, Cullen moved to number two on my list, behind Paul Dewar (oh no, I just gave away the ending!).
A few days later, Cullen announced his policy for “cooperation” with other “progressive parties” in Canada. I put “cooperation” in quotes because I don’t Cullen acts like his proposal is the only form of cooperation that fits the definition of the word. In fact, the NDP already does cooperate with other parties, including the Conservatives from time to time. We had minority Parliaments from 2004 to 2011. No law could be passed without at least one party cooperating with the Conservatives. The NDP also cooperated most significantly in the aftermath of the 2008 election with the Liberals and the Bloc, when we attempted to form a coalition government with the Liberal Party. That was cooperation.
Cullen’s proposal can also be defined as cooperation, but I think a more accurate term would be “non-competition”. His proposal is for the NDP, Liberals, and Greens to not compete with each other in some Conservative-held ridings. The problems with the proposal are many. Many concerns were raised when Cullen visited Edmonton for his Kitchen Table Talk earlier this winter. When asked what New Democrats would do in ridings where there is no NDP candidate, Cullen would not give a straight answer. He instead told the audience that the NDP would out-organize the other parties in his proposed joint nomination meetings. To me, that says this isn’t really about cooperating. It’s about trying to find clever ways to get more Liberals and Greens to support our candidates. If Cullen said that out front (or if he would say that at all), the policy would be a non-starter for many who see him as the uniter of all things not Conservative. Further, we should not be so arrogant as to think we can out-organize the Liberals EVERYWHERE. In Edmonton, and maybe all of Alberta, sure, I can see it. But I know other parts of the country are different. And maybe in a place like Edmonton Centre, where the Liberals held the seat with former Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan until 2006, the Liberals would out-organize us, even though we placed second to the Conservatives with Lewis Cardinal’s campaign in 2011. If Cardinal lost a joint nomination meeting for the next election, would he line up all of his supporters and volunteers behind a Liberal? Would party members be okay with giving up the 60% election expense rebate candidates get if they receive over 10% of the vote? Assuming Cardinal’s campaign spends the same it did in last year’s election (approximately $71,000), the party would be giving up over $42,000 in that riding alone. Granted, we don’t spend that much money in every Conservative-held riding, but we did qualify for the rebate in 305 out of 308 ridings. And does that also mean we don’t build up any supporter lists in ridings where we don’t run candidates? Probably. I can’t imagine a Liberal campaign handing a list of supporters over to us. Which brings up another point. Are the Greens or Liberals interested in this proposal? If it were to work as Cullen says it will, both of those parties would need to pass resolutions at their own federal conventions to put the policy in place. Not to mention that the NDP would have to pass such a resolution. From my experiences at two federal NDP conventions, I can’t see the party membership passing such a resolution, even if we did elect Cullen leader.
None of the concerns I have listed were, in my view, addressed in a satisfactory way when Cullen visited Edmonton. If we are looking for ways to demotivate our volunteers, members, and supporters, the Cullen plan is a great way to do that. I don’t think that’s what party members want.
I apologize for how lengthy I have been with Cullen’s proposal, but I feel that it should be discussed without the rhetoric and judged on its merits. When it is looked at closely, it becomes very difficult for people committed to making our country more progressive to embrace. I won’t discuss the idea of the Liberals and Greens as “progressive”, other than to say I think that’s false. The records of both parties do not bear that out, in my view. That discussion is a whole other blog post if people are interested.
Needless to say, Cullen’s “cooperation” proposal immediately plunged him to the bottom of my list with Mulcair. Some of my fellow New Democrats in Edmonton who had declared their support for him when he first announced immediately switched their allegiances. Whether Cullen likes it or not, he has made the proposal the sole issue on which his candidacy will be judged. Though he has significant depth on other issues, in members’ minds, most will place Cullen on their ballot in a place that shows how much they agree or disagree with the proposal. For me, that place is at the bottom.
6. Martin Singh
I’ll say only a few things about Singh. First I think his presentation in the first debate was very impressive. He is a terrific speaker. I’ve met him a couple of times briefly at the past two federal NDP conventions through the NDP’s Faith and Social Justice Commission of which he and I are both members (he is currently a Co-chair). I am very happy he has committed to running for Parliament in the next election regardless of how he fares in the leadership race.
His shortfalls are obvious. He has never been in elected office before. He had no national profile prior to entering the leadership race. Most party members didn’t even know who he was. And he has made himself a single-issue candidate. Almost everything that comes out of his mouth relates to his owning small businesses and how pro-business he is. While I think that’s terrific and I do think our party needs to talk about business more and how government can work with businesses to grow our economy and create jobs, we need more depth than that. Based on Singh’s focus on this single issue and lack of other credentials, I can only assume that the purpose of his candidacy in his mind is to give business issues a more prominent place in the leadership race. I think that’s a good thing, so I’m glad he is in the race. But I do hope he diversifies his talking points in future debates.
5. Romeo Saganash
Before I get into my views on Saganash’s candidacy, I want to say that my preferences can be divided into two categories: those I don’t believe are fit to lead the party, at least at this time, and those I would enthusiastically support if they won the race. My bottom three choices are in the former category, and my top five choices are in the latter category (making Saganash the first acceptable choice in my list so far). That said, here are my thoughts on his candidacy.
I met Saganash briefly at the 2011 federal NDP convention in Vancouver last summer. He was very impressive in person. He also gave an address to the main convention floor. His speech was very inspiring. He speaks fluently in English, French, and Cree.
He has not been to Edmonton yet for a Kitchen Table Talk, so I don’t know much about him in detail. I have followed his campaign from the beginning and haven’t seen as much activity as I have seen from a number of other candidates. He is also very new to Parliament, being recently elected in the 2011 campaign. He does have an impressive resume, but in my view, Parliamentary experience is essential. Another concern I have with him is that he seemed nervous and somewhat uncomfortable on stage during the first debate. And during his visit to Edmonton for the Leader’s Levee event, his presence didn’t draw people in from around the room like other candidates did.
Saganash, barring any major changes, will not go down on my list. He may go up on my list, depending on how he is when he does make it to Edmonton again and how he fares in the remaining national debates. He seems to be an amazing MP and maybe he’ll be ready for leadership of the party sometime down the road. However, I don’t think he’s ready quite yet.
4. Peggy Nash
Nash, for me, is the biggest question mark right now. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to attend her Kitchen Table Talk. There is still much I don’t know about her. From what I can tell, I do like her politics. The biggest complaint I’ve heard about her is that she isn’t as engaging as some of the other candidates. Some say she doesn’t inspire them. Does a leader need to be engaging and inspiring? That’s a big question and is one worth asking, but it is beyond the scope of this post. ;)
I’ve received Nash’s regular campaign updates via her e-mail list. I saw her in the national debate. I supported her in 2009 when she ran to be the President of the federal NDP and won. I was also at the 2011 convention where there was a controversy about whether or not her President’s report to the convention would be followed by a Q and A period. The convention eventually voted to force her to take questions on the report. That event, though important to some, wasn’t a defining event for me. I can get over that. In fact, I had forgotten it even happened until another Alberta New Democrat raised it when considering her candidacy for leader.
Nash has focused almost solely on the economy through her campaign so far. Part of that may be that the only official debate that has been held was focused on the subject. Another part of that is likely that the economy is where she feels she has the best credentials, relative to the other candidates. She was, after all, Jack Layton’s pick as Finance Critic when the NDP became the Official Opposition. I have been very impressed with her focus on the economy. Unlike Singh, I don’t get the sense that it is her only issue. She does seem to have more depth than that, and I look forward to hearing her views on more issues.
The two main things that put her further down my list are her lack of charisma and her lack of focus on the West. The first is something that is important to me personally, but is not something a party leader or Prime Minister must necessarily have. The second is the main reason she isn’t further up on my list. I recently had a conversation with a prominent Alberta New Democrat who had a personal meeting with Nash in which the person asked her what she saw as growth potential for the party. Nash’s answer did not include any mention of Alberta. I think it’s telling that when being asked in Alberta (where we have 27 Conservative MPs and 1 new Democrat) by an Alberta New Democrat about growth for the party, her answer doesn’t include Alberta. I find that even more telling when I consider that there are two seats besides the one in Alberta we currently hold that were priorities for the party in the last election, both of which saw enormous growth in support. It’s terrific if Nash can grow the party in the area around Toronto, in the Greater Vancouver area, and around Winnipeg. But I’m an Alberta New Democrat, so I want to know what she is going to do to grow the party here. If that’s not a priority, then she’ll likely stay where she is on my list. I do wish I had been at her Kitchen Table Talk. Maybe there is something I missed. I hope that she makes a point of putting some focus on the West over the next couple of months. If she does that, she may move up a spot or two.
3. Brian Topp
When Topp announced his run for leader, it brought up more questions for me than any of the other candidates. And I probably wouldn’t have taken much note of him, like Martin Singh, if he didn’t have the support of such party stalwarts as Ed Broadbent, Libby Davies, and Roy Romanow. He has never had a seat in any public office. I only know who he is because I’m a hyper-engaged partisan who read the articles he wrote in the Globe & Mail, read his book on the 2008 coalition negotiations, and voted for him when he became Peggy Nash’s successor as President of the federal NDP at the party’s 2011 convention.
On the day Topp announced, flanked by former party leader Ed Broadbent and prominent Quebec MP Francoise Boivin, what caught my attention, besides his company, was the first question he was asked by a reporter. He was asked what Canada should do about Palestine’s bid for statehood in the United Nations. Topp answered, unflinchingly, that Canada should support the bid. Ever since, he has been in the upper half of my list, and I’ve paid close attention to his campaign. When he visited Edmonton in December for his Kitchen Table Talk, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Topp was very engaging. He was charismatic. He spoke at length with substance when he answered each question. He even spoke with a relatively high degree of knowledge about the oilsands. He talked about ensuring more value is added to Canada’s natural resources, so that we’re not just shipping raw products out of the country. The issue is one of the biggest ones in Alberta and is a big concern of many who traditionally vote Conservative. I think it’s his experience working in different parts of the country that make him quick to recognize the uniqueness of our province, even though Alberta is not on his job history.
But there have been a couple of negatives, in my view, since his campaign began. I was disappointed during the first leadership debate to see the way Topp attempted to get a scuffle going between himself and Paul Dewar. It was not, for me, anything to do with my support for Dewar. To me, it was about the substance. Topp’s attempt at “debate” was based on rhetoric, not policy. It was the most unnecessary part of the entire debate. Topp, as a long-time party strategist, should know better than to act that way on national television.
The other negative, for me, came up during his Kitchen Table Talk. Topp has said he would abolish Canada’s Senate (a good thing, in my view) but that he would use the money saved to add an additional 100 seats to Parliament which would be elected proportionally. I do believe it’s the right thing to do to implement proportional representation. It’s deplorable that the NDP got 32% of the vote in Saskatchewan, yet not one NDP MP got elected from that province. It is equally deplorable that a 23% vote for the Bloc in Quebec won the party only 4 out of 75 seats. There are similar examples for the Liberal, Conservative, and Green voters through every election cycle. My first concern with 100 new MPs is that I don’t think we need 438 MPs in Parliament. The US House of Representatives has only 435 seats, and it represents almost 10 times as many people. I can’t imagine going into an election campaign trying to convince the electorate (particularly in Alberta) that we need to add another 100 seats to Parliament. Another concern arose when I shared my concerns with a Topp campaign activist after the event. I was told that each of the 10 provinces would receive 10 new seats under the Topp plan for proportional representation. To clarify, I asked if I was understanding it correctly that Prince Edward Island, currently the most over-represented province in the House of Commons (PEI has less than 35,000 people per seat, whereas Alberta has over 100,000 people per seat), would be given a total of 14 seats instead of the current 4. The answer was yes. I can’t imagine the country uniting under that proposal. Further, I can’t see Quebec, which has been so much the focus of Topp’s campaign so far, accepting representation of 1 MP per 85,000 people to PEI having 1 MP per 10,000 people (approximately the proportions that would result from adding 10 extra MPs to both provinces). I e-mailed the Topp campaign a few weeks ago to clarify the policy and have heard no response. There are only two things posted on Topp’s “On the Issues” section of his website, both to do with wealth inequality. I suppose I may just have to wait to get the full details of Topp’s proposal. For now, he sits at number three. With his method of implementing proportional representation, he likely won’t move any higher on my list. There is certainly a possibility he’ll move down if Nash and/or Saganash improve over the next few months.
2. Niki Ashton
I first met Niki Ashton a couple of years ago when we hosted her at the University of Alberta to give a talk as the NDP’s Post-Secondary Education Critic. She was very impressive. Executive members of the U of A Students’ Union, none of which were New Democrats, told me they were also very impressed with her. I experienced her public speaking skills most notably at the 2009 federal NDP convention in Halifax, where she was one of the weekend’s MCs. During the first NDP leadership debate, she was very comfortable and confident. She is engaging and charismatic. In addition to our country’s two official languages, she also speaks Cree. She has been in Parliament since she was first elected in 2008. Although I haven’t heard her focus specifically on Alberta yet, she has definitely made it clear that the West is one of her prioritieis. I look forward to hearing more about her thoughts on how she sees Alberta fitting into her vision of an NDP government. I still have much to learn about her, so I am excited to be attending the Kitchen Table Talk she is giving in just over a week (link above in the 4th paragraph). If you live in the Edmonton area, it will be an event you won’t want to miss.
I do have a few reservations at this point about Ashton’s candidacy. I was going to say I haven’t heard much from her about policy, but after looking on her website, it looks like she has actually talked quite a bit of policy so far. I suppose many don’t see her as a viable candidate, so she isn’t garnering much media attention. However, I do still want to learn more about her ideas, particularly as they relate to Canada’s place in the world. Ashton’s sound bite phrase of “new politics” has started to get a bit annoying for me, so I’m hoping she doesn’t continue harping on that. It’s a fine idea, but the phrase doesn’t need to be repeated at every opportune moment. The other thing that makes me hesitate a bit is her age. And I’m not sure if that should matter. Ashton is only 29 years old right now. Her age itself isn’t a problem for me. But the question is if it would be a problem for Canadian voters. She’ll be 33 or so at the time of the next election. Would voters take her seriously? I think it’s tough to tell. What I am sure of is that if she doesn’t win this round, she has a very bright political career ahead of her. She will finish the leadership race having pleasantly surprised many people across the country, and she’ll have a greater public profile. Assuming she doesn’t win this race, my hope is that she’ll stay in Parliament for years to come and have the opportunity to focus on a number of different portfolios (in critic positions or, if things go well, cabinet positions). She can raise her public profile even more through a few sessions of Parliament and may end up one of the top contenders for the NDP leadership job the next time around. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have a Prime Minister Ashton. I would not be completely shocked.
1. Paul Dewar
Dewar has been at the top of my list since before he announced his candidacy. In fact, I sent him an e-mail message before he declared to encourage him to put his name forward. He was first elected to Parliament in 2006 and had a teaching career before that. Since being elected, he has been one of the most high-profile NDP MPs in the country, serving as the party’s Foreign Affairs Critic from 2007 until he stepped aside to run for the NDP leadership in 2011. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Paul over the past couple years. I have talked with him extensively about foreign affairs and am always amazed at the depth of knowledge he has about the entire world. Foreign affairs, for me, is one of the most important policy areas to look at in choosing the next NDP leader. We are at the point where we are picking a potential Prime Minister. The only candidate to me who truly looks Prime Ministerial is Paul Dewar. He has a vision for the country and a vision for the world. During his visit to Edmonton for his Kitchen Table Talk, he spoke with depth on every issue that was raised. He is casual and comfortable in a room of strangers. He is confident and has charisma when he addresses a crowd. He was the first leadership candidate to really focus on the West and talk about it as one of the places the party needs to focus on. He understands Albertans’ issues. I have heard him talk a number of times about how we need to add value to our raw resources before we export them. He is a bridge-builder with broad appeal. He has made a point not to alienate any of the candidates in the leadership race, including those he has major disagreements with. I believe he’ll attract many Canadians who hesitate to look at the NDP. He is a likeable public persona.
The major criticism of Dewar, and really the only one I’ve heard, is that his French isn’t good enough. I do share some of that concern, however, I don’t think our criteria for picking the next Prime Minister should focus solely on language. He managed himself in the first bilingual leadership debate and according to a Francophone friend of mine, has improved immensely from even the beginning of the campaign. He has a French teacher who travels with him on his leadership campaign, and it is clearly working. It is extremely important that our next leader can speak French. But I think it’s naive to think that the candidate with the best French is automatically going to hold onto all of our seats in Quebec. Quebec voters are as much concerned about personality and policy as voters in the rest of the country. We need a leader who can speak French, who has progressive values and ideals, who can unite the party, and who has broad appeal across the country. Paul Dewar, for me, fits that description better than any of the other candidates.
Well, I suppose that brings us to a conclusion. For me, Mulcair, Cullen, and Singh are off the list. They are all numbered on this post, but the three of them will not be ranked on my ballot. They are the only candidate I believe would be bad for the party from the start. Saganash, Nash, Topp, and Ashton are all subject to change, and I anticipate their order on my ballot will change, though I’m not sure in what way yet. There is still much to happen before we cast our votes to decide who will be the next leader of the NDP and the Official Opposition. I’ll be trying to take in as much as possible from all of the candidates between now and the leadership convention, including the candidates I’ve ruled out. I still want to see them all as NDP MPs and cabinet ministers, inshalla. Paul Dewar is at the top of my list and will remain there when I cast my ballot, unless something drastically changes before then. His vision for Canada and the world is one that I can embrace without reservations.