Canada's New Democrats will be electing a new leader next March in Toronto. With the death of Jack Layton, who led the party to unprecedented heights, New Democrats are anxious to elect a candidate who can both consolidate the gains from the last election, particularly in Quebec, as well as increase the party's strength in the rest of Canada.
There are eight candidates for the leadership:
- Manitoba MP Niki Ashton
- British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen
- Ontario MP Paul Dewar
- Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair
- Ontario MP Peggy Nash
- Quebec MP Romeo Saganash
- Nova Scotia business owner Martin Singh
- Former party president Brian Topp
Despite a lot of posturing, no one really has a good read on the state of the race. What little public opinion research there has been has polled party supporters, not party members. With a high undecided, the interpretation of most reasonable analysts has been that the data to date primarily reflects Thomas Mulcair's broader name recognition.
Members will be able to vote in three ways:
- live, ballot by ballot at the convention
- live, ballot by ballot online from wherever they are
- in advance, using a preferential ballot.
From lowest to highest, here is my take on the race.
Three way tie for last
For better or for worse, there are three candidates I am simply not prepared to support.
Canada is a bilingual country, and as of May 2 of this year, almost 60 percent of NDP seats are from Quebec. While New Democrats might have been able to spare a potential leader time to work on his French in previous leadership contests, that is simply not an option in 2012.
With the departure of Robert Chisholm (who would have been a very strong candidate except for his lack of French), all of the remaining candidates do speak French to some degree or another. Many supporters of Ottawa MP Paul Dewar would argue that his French is "good enough and improving."
I'm not convinced that "good enough to go on holiday in Quebec City" or "good enough to order poutine in Alma" is quite the standard. I think the new leader needs to be up to an appearance on Tout le monde en parle the day after the leadership vote.
Now my limited French is not sufficient to judge. But the punditocracy and the commentariat have been pretty clear in the assessment of six out of eight candidates on this score.
Four candidates are consistently reported as meeting that test: Ashton, Mulcair, Saganash and Topp.
Two have mixed reports: Nash (with most commentary saying she passes) and Cullen (about even).
Two are consistently described as not being good enough in French: Dewar and Singh.
So for me, Dewar and Singh are off the list. Barring a mass of media coverage of Dewar's or Singh's miraculous social democratic glossolalia, I will not be voting for them.
The mixed reports on Cullen's French might well have been enough to put him into this same category. However, even if it turns out his French is better than Voltaire's, Nathan Cullen will be languishing at the bottom of my list based on his proposal to have New Democrats help rebuild the Liberal Party. Okay, I know that's not what he says his "joint nomination" plan is about. But that's what his joint nomination plan will accomplish. It'll rebuild the right wing Liberal Party and it will do nothing to defeat the Harper Conservatives.
Originally, Nash was running third for me. But over the past weeks there have been more and more reports of wooden performance and difficulty connecting with crowds. I'm hearing more and more concern from members and activists about Nash's approach representing a return to the days before the cultural change Jack Layton brough to the party.
But what moved Nash right down to the bottom of the list (at least the list of those I'm still prepared to vote for) were a series of reports of very hamfisted comments which demonstrated that she is limited in her capacity to understand issues as they play outside of urban central Canada. In particular were reliable reports from an event in Calgary where, in answer to a question about rebuilding the NDP on the Prairies, she started by saying she'd bring back the long gun registry.
Now the registry is a complicated issue, and it certainly plays much differently in Nash's downtown Toronto riding than it does across the Prairies. The registry had broad public support in urban central Canada, but was a flashpoint of anger for many in the rural west. As Brian Topp observed several years ago, when someone in Toronto thinks about guns, they think about gangs and crime, while someone in small town Saskatchewan thinks of grandpa and duck hunting.
Frankly, I can't quite fathom why anyone discussing the rebuilding of the NDP in western Canada would bring up the long gun registry at all. The demise of the Liberals' badly flawed instrument presents us with an opportunity to approach the issue of firearms regulation in a way that doesn't ape the wedge politics of either the Liberals and the Conservatives. But to lead with the baldly stated determination to bring back the Liberal registry largely unchanged is beyond bizarre. I gather that several people - including several who actually support the reintroduction of a registry - walked away from the event wondering about Peggy Nash's political instincts.
For the moment, Nash remains at number five. She could move back up from there. Or she could join Cullen, Dewar and Singh at the bottom.
Brian Topp has actually moved up - though principally because Peggy Nash has moved down.
Despite a political resume that extends back to the 1980s, Topp has never sought public office. His strengths as a strategist are broadly acknowledged and have steadily improved over time. He is clearly and unequivocally the establishment candidate, with endorsements from a number of party grandees.
Born in Quebec into a bicultural family, Topp has worked for politicians from across Canada, including several years as a senior staffer with Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow and has strong connections to BCNDP leader Adrian Dix. He was a key negotiator in the unsuccessful attempt to form a Liberal - NDP coalition government in 2008 - 2009.
Rumours of a Topp candidacy began floating in the media before Jack Layton's funeral which created significant blowback among the chattering classes. Perceptions that Topp's people were behind a whisper campaign targeting Thomas Mulcair added to the sense of unease.
Topp has certainly tried to liven up the race with some direct criticisms of other candidates. Unfortunately for Topp, his limited retail political experience comes out in his wooden and occasionally painful platform performance. His attempts to position himself as the defender of the party's leftist tradition rings a little false given his years in the pragmatic and ideologically light Romanow ministry.
Widely assumed to be the heir apparent prior to Jack Layton's death, Thomas Mulcair has been thriving in the oddly fitting role of the underdog. Like Topp, a bicultural Quebecker, Mulcair has far and away the longest and most impressive electoral resume in the race.
Although he apparently first joined the NDP in the 1970s, most of Mulcair's life in electoral politics has been spent in Quebec. With no provincial NDP, and with politics functioning on a federalist / souvereigniste axis instead of the usual left / right axis, Mulcair was a member of the Quebec Liberal Party, a fact his critics bring up with startling frequency. Mulcair resigned from the Jean Charest Cabinet over an environmental dispute, gaining something of a hero status in some quarters.
Despite having been courted by every federal party, Mulcair shocked the Quebec political class by choosing to run for the NDP in the Outremont byelection in 2007. At the time, the NDP were languishing in the single digits in Quebec, having only elected one Quebec MP ever, and that nearly two decades earlier.
Mulcair was a large part of the public face of the NDP in Quebec during last year's election. He'd had a leading role in candidate recruitment and political development for the party in Quebec. But the scale of the Orange Surge that saw the NDP win 59 of 75 Quebec seats caught even Mulcair by surprise. After the election, he was forced to spend significant time helping new MPs, particularly the poteaux who'd never been expected to win, adjust to the challenges of a suddenly public life.
The need for the party to consolidate the gains in Quebec is the strongest and most compelling part of the Mulcair narrative. He has the support of nearly half the existing Quebec caucus. The question for Mulcair is how much suport he can build outside Quebec, particularly since the Quebec membership is relatively small as a proportion of the overall membership.
Romeo Saganash has a story that makes the adjective Lincolnesque seem entirely inadequate. Born to a family of trappers, he was removed from his culture into the last days of the residential school system. He became a leader among his people and successfully negotiated treaty.
Yet somehow the media and the chattering classes refuse to look on Saganash as a credible candidate. He's referred to this pretty overtly himself in a viral tweet:
Learn four languages, negotiate treaties, defend rights, become an MP. Still get asked if you're a 'serious' candidate.
Sadly, I think the general dismissal of Saganash as a serious candidate is rooted in endemic racism. It's not an overt, "we'd never vote for an Indian" kind of racism. But we live in a society where the qualities of leadership are defined by a dominant culture - and as someone who is apart from that dominant culture, Saganash doesn't fit the picture most of us have in our mind when we think of leadership.
Now, I think Nash and Ashton face similar challenges due to the patriarchal cultural norms. But I think (conceding upfront this is a highly debatable point) that Canadian progressives have more experience identifying and compensating for endemic sexism than endemic racism.
I have to admit that I first gravitated towards Niki Ashton because that's where the people I'd worked most closely with seemed to be going. But as I watched, I became convinced of Niki's strengths in her own right.
Ashton's career in electoral politics began with a nomination challenge against a sitting NDP MP who had refused to support equal marriage. In rural Manitoba, her first political act was to stand up for LGBTQ rights.
She was successful in denying Bev Desjarlais the nomination, but when Desjarlais ran as an independent, the reulting vote split saw Ashton coming second to a Liberal star candidate, North of 60 actress Tina Keeper. But Ashton was back in the subsequent election to retake Churchill for the NDP.
Fluent in Greek (her first language), English, French and Spanish, Ashton also speaks some Mandarin, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish, and is currently working on learning Cree and Michif. A university lecturer prior to her election to Parliament, Ashton has been working on her doctorate while serving as an MP.
She's a fierce advocate for her constituents. One of her signature issues has been a fight against a Brazilian multinational, Vale, which is trying to shut down nickel smelter and refinery operations in Ashton's hometown of Thompson. As part of that struggle, she managed to get film maker Michael Moore to produce a documentary about Vale's assault on Thompson's economy. She's also made a splash defending the soon to be dismantled Canadian Wheat Board and the jobs in the Port of Churchill that could disappear along with it.
Unlike many in the NDP, Ashton clearly understands that winning a federal election isn't just about winning over discouraged Liberals, but about taking the fight to the Conservatives and winning away Conservative held ridings. She understands that the historical path to majority government in Canada has been to win Quebec and the West - and she knows how to win in the West.
And besides, Nίκη is Greek for victory.