Quick takes on the NDP leaders’ showcase: Cullen, Dewar, Topp, Ashton, Mulcair, Nash and Singh

A review from the floor of the candidates’ presentations at the NDP leadership convention

1. B.C. MP Nathan Cullen went first at the NDP convention’s afternoon showcase for leadership contenders. This was, I would say, unfortunate for most of the rest of the field. Cullen is arguably the most natural performer of the bunch. True to form, he was energized and upbeat.

Some will be surprised by Cullen’s decision to start out on a strictly somewhat (comments caught me showing my central Canadian bias) regional issue—his opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would cut through his riding. (Check out Paul Wells for the oil-and-politics context.) But this might well have been a smart move—reminding British Columbia’s 39,000 NDP members, close to a third of those eligible to vote for the late Jack Layton’s successor, where he hails from.

On his controversial proposal for NDP cooperation with Liberals and Greens in ridings held by the Conservatives, Cullen promised an “open, democratic” conversation on the matter. “There are some that like it and there are some that don’t, and that’s cool,” he said. To my ear, that was too light a touch for a pretty weighty proposal.

2. Ottawa MP Paul Dewar just exited the stage. Unlike Cullen’s solo show, Dewar started out with a bunch of endorsements and a longish video presentation. In the Youtube era, that seems to me like the sort of stuff you go online for; when you show up at a convention, you want to see flesh-and-blood politicians up there sweating.

Once Dewar stepped to the podium, though, he wasn’t half bad. He unabashedly invoked Jack Layton repeatedly (odd to hear the Toronto Convention Centre’s south building called “the House that Jack Built,” but we took his drift).  He dismissed the rifts that have largely defined the race, without naming names, as irrelevant. It’s not about left (Topp) or right (Mulcair), Dewar said, or about cooperating with other parties (Cullen).  “It’s about the real majority of Canadians who have been left out by the Conservatives,” Dewar said.

Dewar’s core message sounded full of anxiety about the party’s future. “We won’t win the trust of Canadians by throwing our principles aside,” he said. Which makes you wonder, is there a risk of that abandonment?  “We may have lost Jack,” he added even more darkly, “but we must not lose our way.”

3. Brian Topp, backroom boy turned leadership aspirant, started out by showing his polished video, narrated by Gordon Pinsent, no less. It ended with a stable of NDP luminaries—Ed Broadbent, Roy Romanow, the whole bunch—looking resolutely into the camera and intoning, “He’s ready.”

It hasn’t always seemed to be so. Topp was uninspiring for much of this race, picking up steam only lately. It’s not clear how many NDPers who took in the early word that he was stiff caught wind of his more comfortable stretch-run performance.  He might have benefited from lowish expectations among some delegates when he took the podium this afternoon and seemed instantly at ease there.

“I’m a proud New Democrat,” Topp said, “and an unapologetic social democrat.” In case you missed it, that last part was a jab at Tom Mulcair, whose detractors say the former provincial Liberal cabinet minister isn’t a real man of the left. But Topp was also careful not to leave the impression that he might somehow be, by comparison, a risky left-wing choice, framing his approach “one practical step at time.”

4. Manitoba MP Niki Ashton won’t be posting big numbers when the first ballot is tallied tomorrow morning. At 29, though, Ashton should be interesting the voice of audaciously ambitious youth in the race. But her speech just now sounded, to me at least, entirely within the safest zone of traditional NDP thinking.

If she represents the next wave of New Democrats, they sound a lot to me like their elders. “I am proud to be part of the Jack Layton generation,” she said. A warm sentiment, but Layton imbibed the ideas that grounded him in politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Ashton even resorted to a retro slogan—“Liberal, Tory, same old story.” She lamented income inequality, the erosion of collective bargaining rights, corporate tax cuts. No doubt these preoccupations are perennials in the party. But shouldn’t a candidate not yet 30 bring something novel, even controversial, to a leadership debate?

5. On Montréal MP Thomas Mulcair’s performance, a bit first on convention craft. Mulcair entered with his cheering section entered from the back of the hall behind a troop of drummers, moving slowly. You could feel the vibrations coming up through the floor.  You don’t get that from a video. And you can’t replicate the experience online.

Unfortunately, the effective setup obviously took longer than planned, leaving Mulcair rushing at an auctioneer-like verbal pace to get his speech out in the allowed total time for the entire presentation of 20 minutes. After that, his microphone would have been cut off. Reading so fast robbed him of the chance to use what is, I would argue, one of Mulcair’s underrated assets—that mellifluous voice of his, which sounded far better in the video part of his show.

What came across despite the haste? This line: “My only adversary sits across from me in the House of Commons.” Mulcair was making two points here: that his much-discussed rivalry with Topp isn’t his ultimate battle, and, by the way, he sits in the House while Topp has never been an MP. He also alluded to his  victory in Quebec as a provincial Liberal, of all things, over the Parti Quebecois. “We won there and we’re going to win here,” Mulcair said, raising the question of how the word “we” is understood at this NDP gathering.

6. Toronto MP Peggy Nash’s fate was worse by far than the mere rushed delivery of Mulcair. He pre-speech presentation went way too long, leaving her without nearly enough time to get through her prepared speech. From the media area, we would see her text, up on the big teleprompter screens, scrolling rapidly, apparently as someone on her team tried to get her to jump ahead.

She didn’t catch on, improvising at points, then reverting to the text. In the end the convention organizers gave her perhaps a minute of extra time, then turned on the music, cutting her short. “So never ever underestimate the determination and the tenacity of a woman leader…” she was saying as the music drowned her out.

It would seem churlish to focus only on the abrupt end, but no doubt many NDPers will. Thus, this might be an appropriate time to remember that most New Democrats who plan to cast their ballots already have: 55,659 (as my colleague Aaron Wherry reports here), at least 60 to 70 per cent of the likely final vote.  So Nash can take solace from the fact that her more than respectable campaign will matter more than what just transpired.

7. Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh is surely the oddest choice on the ballot, in that he’s never stood for public office. By comparison, Ashton is seasoned veteran.

Yet it fell to Singh, of all candidates, to be the first to invoke NDP icon Tommy Douglas, whose name is typically dropped with great regularity at any NDP gathering. (Layton has now supplanted him.) Singh cited “Tommy” as an inspiration in his guise as the sainted father of universal medical insurance.

Overall, Singh’s delivery was rousing in an old-timey way. Nothing wrong with that. However, his lack of any credentials whatsoever for the leadership of any party makes his candidacy strange at best. At worst, he will be seen bringing a block of South Asian votes to Mulcair, whom he’s picked as his second choice, which is an awkward sort of political gambit whenever it happens.

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