From Ottawa With Love: A Radio-Friendly NDP Leadership Debate

Since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of the 60s, politics have been almost all about what the candidates look like, and how they hold themselves on camera. Sure, what they have to say, and how they say it is important too, but this ain’t radio. For me last Sunday, though, it kind of was like radio and way more about what was said then how the candidates looked saying it.

Instead of watching the first of six NDP leadership debates at home online (my version of tee vee), I was there in person at the Ottawa Convention Centre. When I got into the room, the only decent seat I could find was on the stage itself (that’s me with the beard), behind the nine candidates vying to replace the late great Jack Layton and become the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition and hopefully Prime Minister of Canada in four years.

That meant two things: I felt a need to hold my phone low and out of frame to Tweet and, most importantly, I didn’t get to see how the candidates looked responding to the questions but rather hear what they had to say. That was a good thing.

This debate wasn’t about putting the other candidate down or throwing out catchphrases. No, all these people were ultimately on the same boat, a boat without a captain and they were all trying to fix that problem.

I can honestly say that I believed everyone up there. They were articulating as truthfully as they could just what direction they would take the party in, not hiding anything ulterior.

It’s no secret that I was partial to Brian Topp going in; hell, I had even hitched a ride on the Topp campaign bus from Montreal. Topp didn’t disappoint. I believed him when he said that it wasn’t enough just to win if winning meant abandoning core NDP values and when he argued that we needed to adress “the central issue of inequality in our country” before anything and the rest would essentially follow.

I also believed Martin Singh when he said he wanted to help out small business, not close to a full platform, really, but he does seem honestly committed to his one cause. When Nathan Cullen said that “a government that believes a national housing strategy is to build more prisons is out of touch and perhaps out of its mind” (nice one) I believed him too just as I believed Robert Chisholm when he said he needed to brush up on his French (seriously, dude).

I also believed Thomas Mucair when he said that the NDP needed to go beyond it’s traditional base to win. No, I don’t think that that approach is necessary. To the contrary, while reaching out to different cultural communities is key, you don’t need to leave your progressive base of ideas to appeal to them. In fact, retaking its progressive base in Quebec from the Bloc is what won the NDP all those seats last election. But I do believe that’s how Mulcair feels and am confident that it’s the direction he will take the party in if elected leader.

Meanwhile Nash, Ashton, Saganash and Dewar all echoed party principles in what they had to say. Peggy Nash spoke of inclusiveness and bringing people together, both urban and rural Canadians. Nikki Ashton, from a rural riding herself, brought up youth issues like accessible education. Romeo Saganash has seen first hand what unequal distribution of wealth can do to a community argued that Ottawa needs a better plan for First Nation communities like Atawapiskat. Paul Dewar has plans for better use of resources that can help us build a stronger green economy.

A greener economy, better housing, and a fairer distribution of wealth were themes echoed by all candidates. While none of them went as far as Topp in defence of the working class, they all had good ideas and something to offer. Since this is a preferrential ballot (you can pick runner-up choices as well), I was busy making my list of backup choices.

But who has what it takes to beat Stephen Harper? From what I heard at this debate, both Topp and Mulcair were quick on their feet with intelligent responses to questions, spoke with fiery confidence, have the experience necessary and are fluently bilingual. Nash comes close, but she’s not as fiery, at least she wasn’t during this debate.

So, with both Topp and Mulcair capable, it comes down to what they plan to do to win and what they plan to do after victory. I don’t fear that Mulcair will turn into Stephen Harper overnight, that would be a stretch, but turning into the Liberals to beat them is a possibility and one that he left the door open to with his statement about moving away from the base. If you’re comfortable with moving to the right in hopes of reaching the center, then Mulcair’s your man.

If, instead, you see the political tides turning and think, like me, that the Occupy Movement, gobal economic troubles, mass strikes and other factors will push the political center to the left, making an option with NDP core values the winning choice against Harper, then Topp’s approach rings true.

I know where I stand and thanks to the honesty of the candidates, NDPers should know too. I’m glad I caught this debate the way I did. It was the perfect radio debate, the kind of debate Canada needs now.

* photos by Chris Zacchia

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