NDP leadership debate stays friendly, but little heat, no Mulcair
There wasn't much to disagree on during the first debate of the campaign to replace Tom Mulcair
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OTTAWA—Debate is a word that implies conflict. With cordiality and agreement cranked to the max, it’s safe to say the first debate in the NDP’s race for a new leader was more of a discussion.
Rather than sniping at each other (or even interrupting), the main target of the event was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man each candidate — MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron and Peter Julian — accused of campaigning as a progressive politician and then governing from the right.
Caron summed this up with one of the biggest laugh-lines of the event. By the next election in 2019, he said Trudeau will be quoting “another Canadian Justin” — Justin Bieber — by asking voters, “Is it too late now to say sorry?”
Julian, a British Columbia MP first elected in 2004, said the NDP has the “guts and courage” that the Liberals lack, and that the party needs to show they will deliver big ideas like his proposals to eliminate post-secondary tuition and build 250,000 affordable housing units.
“The Liberals talk a good game, but they always follow. They do not lead,” he said. “We need leadership.”
But beyond Angus’s suggestion that Caron’s plan to create a basic minimum income for people below the poverty line might be too “complicated,” there was scant tension between the candidates’ positions during the 90-minute forum on Sunday.
At one point during a tête-à-tête between two candidates, the moderator had to say, “It’s an open debate, so please, step in.”
Organizers said there were chairs for more than 400 people in the downtown hotel conference room that was packed with NDP faithful. The candidates stood at lecterns on a stage and spoke about how Canada should react to President Donald Trump and deal with the planned renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
There were also questions on how the NDP can connect with people in Quebec, home to the bulk of its electoral gains under former leader Jack Layton in 2011, when the party rose to the official Opposition for the first time in its 55-year history.
But none of the candidates vying to take the helm of the party from Tom Mulcair mentioned their outgoing leader during their 90-minute forum. Instead, there were several appeals to Layton’s legacy, and much agreement on the need for “bold” policies to reconnect with left-leaning Canadians looking for a government that reflects their beliefs.
Ashton, who represents a riding in northern Manitoba, said the main lesson from the 2015 federal election was that the NDP needs to be “unabashedly progressive.” The party should push back against the “neo-liberal” policies of the Liberals and Conservatives, which are to blame for the economic inequality that leaves many Canadians behind, Ashton said.
“We played it too safe,” she said of the last election. “We let the Liberals out-left us.”
Angus, meanwhile, said the global political climate, with the rise of Trump and right-wing populism in Europe, means Canada has a moral obligation to stand up to “hatred” and attempts to divide the population for political gain.
He also said that if NAFTA is to be renegotiated, Canada needs a prime minister who will fight for Canadian workers.
Caron, a Quebec MP and economist, brought up the importance of so-called “identity questions” for the party’s success in Quebec, referring to controversy in the province during the last election over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a veil when they swear an oath of citizenship.
Many observers and party insiders have argued that Mulcair’s stance on this issue — that women should be able to wear the veil — cost them votes in Quebec in 2015. Caron told reporters after the debate that similar issues of religious accommodation are bound to come up again, and should be discussed during the leadership race.
Caron said any message on the issue from the party needs to be grounded in an understanding of Quebec’s history and influence of the Catholic Church.
“We cannot be blind to say this had no effect on the election. It did,” he said. “The whole debate strikes a chord in the heart of Quebecers.”
Sunday’s event was the first of eight debates scheduled in the coming months.
Party members will vote on a new leader this October.