Reading the NDP Tea Leaves

Peggy Nash

Any good pundit (for is that not what I aspire to become?) must dispense with caution and modesty from time to time and, in godlike fashion, attempt to predict the future. It is a virtually risk-free enterprise. If my prediction turns out wrong, no one will notice or care, because the political commentariat never gets these things right anyway. If, however, my prediction is borne out, I will be showered with fame and fortune as a prophet and soothsayer, notwithstanding the laws of statistics which dictate that even the unlikeliest of occurrences is bound to be correctly guessed by some clueless schmuck somewhere.

So here goes: I hereby forecast that on March 24, Peggy Nash will become the next leader of the NDP.

“But Song of the Watermelon,” I can hear my twos of readers asking, “isn’t the smart money on Thomas Mulcair?” No, for while he may win a plurality of votes on the first ballot, he is sure to be the second choice of almost no one. Some purveyors of conventional wisdom peg Nathan Cullen supporters as Mulcair’s kingmakers on the grounds that both contenders are pragmatists (where for Mulcair, “pragmatist” is code for centrist, and for Cullen, “pragmatist” actually means pragmatist). I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Yes, they both tend to anger NDP traditionalists (for different reasons) and they both share greenish leanings, but Cullen’s heavy focus in his leadership campaign on cooperation with the Liberals and Greens makes him somewhat of a wild card. The votes of his independent-minded supporters will likely scatter about unpredictably once he inevitably (and sadly!) fails to make the cut in the final rounds of voting at the convention.

Peggy Nash and Brian Topp, and to a lesser extent Paul Dewar and perhaps even Niki Ashton, are the true kindred spirits. They are the ones left competing for the far more fertile ground of the NDP’s left wing. Ashton will probably end up with less support than Cullen. Dewar won’t get far either despite recent speculation to the contrary (caused in no small part by one of his campaign’s internal — and therefore thoroughly unreliable — polls). At the end of the day, New Democrats eager to hold onto their gains in Quebec are unlikely to choose as their leader a candidate with such poor French.

Not long ago, Topp — with his high-profile endorsements and apparatchik credentials — was considered the one to beat. In recent weeks, however, his campaign has lost momentum. The best he can do now is deliver second- and third-preference votes to the winner.

Which leaves us with Peggy Nash. (And with Martin Singh, but on what planet does he have a shot?) Nash’s campaign has been a bit vague at times, but she appears to have what it takes to please as many NDP members as possible. And as I’ve made clear in previous posts, even for a non-New Democrat like me, she is most certainly one of the better ones.

Although normally an eternal pessimist in all matters political, today I judge my crystal ball to be half full. So make way as I spike said crystal ball in celebration and make a mess with whatever it was half full of. Whereupon I dance.

Go Peggy!

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My NDP Picks

Nathan CullenWith the March 24 leadership convention for Canada’s New Democratic Party fast approaching, I am now finalizing my endorsements. (Sorry to keep you waiting, New Democrats, I know you’re on the edge of your seats for a Green’s friendly suggestions.) What follows are my (tentative) choices, from first to last, in accordance with the preferential vote that the NDP will be holding:

1. Nathan Cullen

Three things about Cullen. First, he is the easiest to get excited about. He has this strange tendency to speak like a real person rather than a politician, and is more comfortable cracking jokes during debates than any other leadership contender. Don’t underestimate a sense of humour in politics.

Second, in a field of candidates with admittedly impressive environmental proposals, Cullen appears to be prioritizing the planet like no other. In his words (as reported in Now Magazine): “To me, when my team forms up, I say the Green lens comes in front of every policy and you drive it through that lens. We’ll release environmental planks but every plank should be environmental. I think the Prime Minister should be the environment minister.”

And third is the centrepiece of his campaign: his proposal that NDP riding associations be given the choice of cooperating with the Liberal and Green Parties by holding joint nominations in Conservative-held constituencies. Every other candidate in the race is opposed to this strategy, but as I made clear in my last post, I think it’s the best chance of defeating the Conservatives. Plus, it would be nice to see a little cooperation and consensus in our otherwise combative political system.

(On the downside, Cullen has a history of opposing Canada’s long-gun registry. Nobody’s perfect.)

2. Peggy Nash

Nash is a New Democrat’s New Democrat. Unassailably progressive, this former trade unionist has a strong activist background both locally and globally. Under her leadership, the NDP is unlikely to drift to the centre as part of the regrettable pattern set by so many other social democratic parties around the world. Nevertheless, her past experience demonstrates a willingness to negotiate and work constructively with others. What’s more, her environmental credentials are significant enough to have earned her two Sierra Club of Canada awards. Also, it’s 2012. Shouldn’t we have more women in politics by now?

3. Brian Topp

Topp is no Jack Layton. The reputed frontrunner suffers from something of a charisma deficit. But he knows his stuff policy- and strategy-wise. Furthermore, to his great credit, his strongly progressive fiscal proposals show that he is not afraid of raising taxes — especially on those who can most afford to pay.

4. Thomas Mulcair

I am somewhat uneasy about Mulcair’s centrism. The presumed second-placer supports free trade, is weak on Palestinian rights, and has attacked Topp’s tax policies. Also, given that his temper is the stuff of legend, his ability to serve as a consensus builder is questionable. That being said, he is probably the party’s best hope of consolidating its electoral gains in Quebec. For that reason alone, I hope whoever wins decides to keep him on as deputy leader. Furthermore, he shares some of Cullen’s plain-talking charm, and is fairly strong on the environment. With the emphasis he places on carbon pricing, I would not be surprised to see him some day pull a Stephane Dion and embrace carbon taxation. At the moment, however, he, like the other candidates, prefers cap-and-trade, which seems to be good enough for climate scientist Andrew Weaver, who has endorsed him.

5. Niki Ashton

To some, Ashton comes across as confident. To me, she is robotic — exactly the opposite of a Cullen or a Mulcair. She’s probably smart, and she tries to focus on the future and to speak on behalf of the younger generation. I suppose the party could do worse.

6. Martin Singh

Singh’s French is passable, but not great. In the debates, he can be forceful at times. He is a pharmacist and speaks more than the others do about a national pharmacare plan.

7. Paul Dewar

Dewar’s French is worst of all. Aside from that, he does not make an impression.

Some Thoughts on the NDP Leadership Debate

Yesterday’s debate between the nine NDP leadership hopefuls did not provide much in the way of surprises.

Thomas Mulcair came across well in that he demonstrated his ability to speak like a real person rather than a robotic, awkwardly gesticulating politician.  (This does not automatically make someone a more suitable choice for prime minister, but it is a relevant consideration in party leadership races, because it impacts a candidate’s electability.  In other words, it shouldn’t matter, but it does.)  Mulcair also said nothing to jeopardize his environmental reputation, but I am still uneasy about his rightward leanings on issues like trade.

Brian Topp, the perceived front-runner, came across mostly as capable but uninteresting — with the exception of his perplexing attempt to shake things up with Paul Dewar.  During one brief exchange, he relentlessly accused Dewar of planning to dramatically increase government debt in order to pay for promised spending, without acknowledging Dewar’s pledge to raise revenue by reversing recent corporate tax cuts.  It is true that these party leadership contests often wind up looking more like love-ins than debates, so good on Topp for trying to do something different I guess.  But the way he did it came across as a bit petty.

I had some hopes for Romeo Saganash, given his impressive background and his status as the only First Nations person to seek leadership of a major federal political party in Canada.  Unfortunately, he came across as a bit too nervous, and I cringed slightly when he dismissed the idea of raising income taxes.

So far the candidates who impress me most in this race are Peggy Nash and Nathan Cullen.  Nash has strong progressive and environmental credentials, which I thought stood out subtly in a debate in which not much was noticeable.  And Cullen, like Mulcair, had a natural way of speaking (even cracking a few jokes), which might be advantageous during a general election.  Futhermore, he had already begun to distinguish himself prior to the debate by staking out unique positions in favour of joint nomination meetings with the Liberals and Greens, and a referendum on ditching the monarchy — both positions that make sense to me.

So at this early stage in the race, even though I am a member of a different party, Nash and Cullen are the New Democrats I’m rooting for.  At any rate, they are certainly worth keeping an eye on.