The Federal NDP Leadership Race Comes to St. John’s
By: Ryan Young
I decided to take in the federal NDP leadership debate in St. John’s on Sunday in order to see how the competition to decide who will take on Justin Trudeau in 2019 was shaping up. I was expecting a fiery and spirited debate and I was not disappointed.
After the NDP’s historic collapse in 2015, many were left to ponder the future of the federal New Democrats. After winning official opposition status with 103 seats in 2011, Tom Mulcair was unable to capitalize on that momentum and a disappointing campaign saw only 44 NDP MP’s elected to the House of Commons. As a result, Mulcair narrowly lost a leadership review last April, which began the search for a new leader to unite the party, and the electorate.
There are five candidates currently in the running for the leadership and they all took in the capital city this weekend, meeting with people to hear about the concerns of NL voters and to talk about policy. After being shutout in Atlantic Canada in the last election, the NDP are keen to rebuild support “down-east,” and winning back the seats the lost here in this province is a big priority.
There are no real frontrunners in the race at this point but the candidates are beginning to reveal their policy ideas and the debate on Sunday was the most divisive so far among the hopefuls. While they may appear very similar when it comes to policy, there are some distinct differences that will separate them leading up to the vote in September.
Jagmeet Singh, the newcomer to the race, faced some attacks from his fellow candidates as he was questioned on his commitment to the federal party and his failure to commit to a policy on pipelines until he had a chance to consult with voters in Alberta and BC. The Ontario MPP and former lawyer stepped down from his role as Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP to join the federal leadership race, and he hopes to lead the charge against poverty and inequality. Singh is very popular, and he has the potential to unite the half million Sikh voters in the country, which would be a big boost to NDP fortunes if they wish to form a government. Some have described him as a “Progressive Justin Trudeau.” He is very selfie friendly and talks like a very skilled politician, but he failed to offer much in the way of solid policy ideas. In fairness, he is new to the race and is promising to release his policy platform soon.
Peter Julian also took some heat during the debate about the credibility of his policy ideas. The point was made that Justin Trudeau had many aspirations during the last election, but has failed to deliver on many of his promises. As such, NDP policy should produce promises that are well thought-out and costed. Julian spent most of his time talking about climate change and clean energy jobs and defending his ideas about affordable housing and free post-secondary education. The long-time BC MP has been involved with the party for four decades and is a popular organizer and activist. While Julian certainly has some good ideas, he was not able to demonstrate how he would implement his policies and I don’t think he was able to convince the audience that he really understands the issues that matter to the people of NL.
Niki Ashton is a fierce debater in the House of Commons and she wasted no time in going on the offense on Sunday. She was tough on Singh for his lack of commitment on pipeline policy and criticized Caron’s basic income policy as “not being an NDP idea.” Hailing from Manitoba, Ashton has been one of the most consistent voices in Ottawa when it comes to indigenous issues and precarious work. At 34, she is the youngest candidate, but by the time the next election rolls around she will have already spent a decade as an MP so she certainly can’t be called inexperienced. She seemed to be on the attack for most of the debate on Sunday and made a strong appeal to millennials in the audience to support her vision of a stronger Canada for our youth.
Charlie Angus was the most jovial of all of the candidates at the debate. His casual but direct style is probably the most leader-like of anyone in the group, but at times it seemed like the debate got away from him under tough questions from the other candidates. The long-time Timmins, Ontario MP is an advocate for indigenous rights and is very vocal on the fact that the NDP needs a clear and concise platform to build the support of Canadians leading up to 2019. While cracking a few jokes, Angus asked his colleagues tough questions about how they intend to implement their policy ideas and closed off by telling us that he has our backs.
Guy Caron was probably the most impressive candidate in the debate. The MP from Rimouski, Quebec is an economist, and is running his campaign on a platform of basic income, electoral reform, and tax reform. Caron probably faced the toughest questions of the day, (an indicator that his opponents see him as a threat) but I felt that he held his own very well and was clear in explaining exactly how his policies would work. So far, he is the only candidate to offer a breakdown of what his policies will cost and how he plans to implement them. I was also impressed with the fact that he was the only candidate to talk about what the NDP might demand if they were to hold the balance of power in a possible minority government situation. This earned him criticism as it was suggested that he didn’t think the party could win, but Caron is very much a realist and despite his desire to become Prime Minister, he understands that the NDP may have a different role to play, depending on where the cards fall in 2019.
All in all it was a spirited debate and New Democrats should feel good in knowing that no matter who wins the leadership in September, the party will be represented by a team of leaders who are bringing some exciting policy discussions to the forefront. While there was no clear winner or loser, I felt that Caron made the best remarks about policy, while Angus really drove home the direction the party needs to take if it wants to have success. With three months left to go before the vote, it will be interesting to see what kind of policy ideas come to the table and if the candidates can remain united and respectful or if the race will get uglier as it moves towards its conclusion.
No matter who wins this leadership race, they will have their work cut out for them when it comes to rebuilding party support. During the federal Conservative leadership race, the tories were able to triple their membership and the NDP will need to do the same if they wish to be a real threat to Trudeau's re-election hopes. It will be very interesting to see who party members choose, and the direction they take New Democrats in the lead up to 2019. It's an exciting time for the party and this race will be worth watching in the months to come.