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Canadian Politics: The NDP Leadership Race Heats Up

The NDP is having a leadership race after the untimely death of Jack Layton this summer, and while the official deadline for candidates to enter the race is January 24th (two months before the election), the second heavyweight threw his hat into the ring last week. There are currently six declared candidates (though I’m not sure how many of them have filed all the official paperwork), so let’s do a rundown of them.

First out of the gate, with an impressive array of big-name backers (including Ed Broadbent and Roy Romanow), was Brian Topp. He’s currently the president of the party, has been a back-room NDP organizer/orchestrater for years, and is widely touted as instrumental in the Orange Wave in Quebec last election, and Layton’s right hand man. He’s fluently bilingual, but has never been elected to any level of government. Lots of big names in NDP circles are lining up behind him, several before anyone else declared they would run, and he’s the race’s juggernaut in a lot of ways.

Next up is Thomas Mulcair, the first Quebec NDP MP elected in a general election (though he was initially elected in a by-election in 2007), former provincial cabinet member under Jean Charest, and one of the two deputy party leaders (Libby Davies being the other). Also fluently bilingual, he’s very well known (and fairly popular) in Quebec, but Quebec has no provincial NDP and very few members. This is not necessarily insurmountable, but going against the fundraising juggernaut of Brian Topp will require some ingenuity. He’s also got a reputation as being hot headed and temperamental – he quit provincial politics when, due to a disagreement with the government’s decision about a provincial park, he was moved from the environment portfolio to government services, which he viewed as a demotion and punishment for disagreeing. I think the contrast between the robotic and wooden demeanour of Stephen Harper would be thrown into sharp contrast with the fire-in-the-belly style of Mulcair. I’ve yet to see that gut-passion from Topp, but then again I’ve seen very little of him period.

Romeo Saganash is also from Quebec, and he is thought to be the first First Nations person to run for leadership of a major national political party. I’m amazed it’s taken us until 2011 to get to that place, but I’m glad that milestone’s been reached. He’s fluently trilingual (Cree, English, and French), has a long history of leadership positions in Cree government and First Nation organizations, and was the first Cree person to receive a law degree in Quebec (in 1989, again, disappointingly late). He’s not well known outside of Quebec, and I hope he doesn’t get shut out of the discourse in this election, because I think he has a lot to bring to the table that’s not often heard. He’s from a remote riding with a different set of issues and priorities than a lot of the city candidates.

Also from a remote riding (though on the other side of the country) is Nathan Cullen. British Columbia has a very large number of members (due in part to the lack of substantial provincial conservative party) and there was much speculation about whether both he and Peter Julian would run for the leadership (Julian is not running). I’m not sure about his level of French, but I believe it is pretty good, and he’s brought a lot of environmental legislation forward in the past. He’s also a dead ringer for Jim Balsillie, but that’s neither here nor there.

Paul Dewar is very well known MP in Ottawa, but again, there’s not as much recognition in other parts of the country. His French is not fluent, though he’s said he’s working on it, and he holds former leader Ed Broadbent’s riding.

Last but not least is Martin Singh, a long time Nova Scotian NDP member who, while he has few ties to the major party movers and shakers, is the president of the party’s faith and social justice committee. I don’t know much about him, and I suspect he will quickly get lost in the shuffle, which is unfortunate.

Noteable too are the people who are missing from the list. All the declared candidates are male, and with the exception of Saganash, white. (Singh is a convert to Sikhism, and is white.) This is not reflective of the caucus, which is 40% female and has a substantial number of non-white members. Libby Davies, Olivia Chow, Megan Leslie, Linda Duncan, Nycole Turmel, and Anne McGrath have all stated that they will not run, for various reasons. Peggy Nash is widely touted as a natural candidate, but I’ve not heard a peep from her in the press about the race at all. I’ve heard mutterings in the press about Niki Ashton throwing her hat in, but mutterings in the papers don’t put names on ballots, so who knows.

I’ve mentioned all the candidates’ ability to speak French because that’s a real sticking point for this race. About half the caucus is from Quebec, and the party definitely needs someone who can both speak French and build bridges between English and French Canada. Obviously every party needs to do this (though the Conservatives don’t seem to do much more than lip service, if that) but since the watershed moment for the national party, which is overwhelmingly based in English Canada, came via the votes of French Canada, the party needs a leader who is very deft at balancing the two both within the party, and dealing with blows from outside the party aimed at driving a linguistic wedge between the caucus and between the rank and file members.

There’s no stand-out candidate in my mind, and I don’t see anyone in the picture who, if they were to run, would be an obvious stand-out candidate. I see strengths and deficiencies on all sides. I am dismayed at Topp’s lack of front-room experience and charisma, because even though he brings a lot of back-room wrangling experience, the back room and the front room are two different rooms that require two very different approaches to be successful. I don’t see much evidence that indicates he can successfully navigate that transition. Mulcair has lots of front room experience in both federal and provincial politics, but he’s a newcomer to the party. While I don’t see that as a big issue, since he’s worked hard to get the NDP into Quebec’s collective consciousness, I think it’ll prove divisive, especially in the West, where he’ll be seen as an Eastern (and Quebecois!) interloper who’s riding in on a horse after English Canada built the party to where it is today. Saganash brings a new (and very needed) perspective coming from First Nations leadership, but he’s barely known outside of Quebec, and not as well known inside Quebec. Cullen has a similar issue nationally, though I think since he’s been an MP for several Parliaments now (and is very popular in his riding), he’s better known than Saganash; I’m not sure about his level of French. Dewar’s got about the same length of experience in federal politics as Cullen, and has been involved in party circles for some time, but I don’t see him bringing an awful lot to the table, and has admitted his French is only “better than Stephen Harper’s.” I know very little about Singh, though having a voice from outside the party brass on the stage will hopefully widen the discussion.

What the party needs to ensure, though, is that this is, as Mulcair said at his announcement, a fair, open, and honest race. Throwing a coronation for Topp will be a detriment to both the leadership of the party (which needs to be broadened and strengthened, not narrowed and self-reinforced) and the fate of the party. Having a free, open, fair race that is well managed and in which the party and candidates act professionally and with dignity will do a lot to solidify the image of the party as a competent Official Opposition, which is sorely needed. A lot of Canadians regard the NDP with skepticism, and since the party will be in the spotlight over this race until March, this is a perfect opportunity to allay those concerns. The party prides itself on being the party that does politics differently: this is the time to demonstrate that, with an open and respectful (which does not mean without disagreement or passion!) race.

If you want to keep track of who’s in and who’s out, here’s the Wikipedia page on it.

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

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