Monday, June 12, 2017

Fourth NDP leadership debate sees some actual debate bucking the tedious trend

The fourth NDP leadership debate held Sunday in Newfoundland was the only one yet to actually approach something like what one anticipates and wants from a real debate. For the first time we saw a format that in a couple of very brief parts allowed the candidates to confront and question each other on differing polices and priorities.

Again, however, most of the "open debate" questions posed by the organizers were questions on which there was likely to be (and was) broad consensus somewhat defeating the point of the open debate sessions at all. They also continued with the bizarre "no applause" policy that truly sucks all the energy out of the room and makes the debaters seem unnaturally formal and stiff.

A new section was added where at two relatively short points the candidates were allowed to directly question each other (called straightforwardly a "Question  Period") and here we finally had some intensity as they sparred on a number of important issues.

For this contest five were present with the short-lived candidacy of "The Colonel" happily having become what will be a fairly bizarre Canadian political footnote.

Jagmeet Singh was significantly stronger during the first parts of the debate than he was at any point in the last one and showed some of the oratory and charisma that many anticipated he would bring to the table. He also talked up the fairly comprehensive (though flawed) Income Security Agenda that he had just released -- a policy platform that we will be looking at more closely in a future piece. He needed this strong first part, as it turned out, as the second half did not go nearly as well.

Guy Caron opened by directly questioning the other candidates in various ways, as almost a foreshadowing of things to come, in what was likely his high point of the whole affair.

During most of the open debates there was little that stood out in part for the reason above. During the "debate" on healthcare funding, for example, Caron noted that they all basically agreed! The non-debate Q & As where each candidate had a minute to answer were similarly not terribly lively or newly enlightening.

The emphases were different though in ways that are becoming more pronounced and expected as the candidates push their agendas and overall campaign tones and with recurring references to their campaign themes and slogans.  We saw this, for example, when they were asked what their first action would be if they became Prime Minister with Niki Ashton emphasizing economic justice, Charlie Angus justice for indigenous peoples, Singh his income act and Caron electoral reform.

Peter Julian seemed somewhat off his game at times though he had his moments especially towards the end. In fact, his answer to the rather light question as to what the candidates would want to be doing as a job if they were no longer politicians was one of the highlights of his debates to date. His answer was very human and heartfelt, clearly deeply meant and likable as he looked back at his times at a brewery, teaching, and working with the disabled for which he showed his great passion.

A low for almost all of the candidates came during their "open debate" on what lessons could be learned from the UK election. This had a darkly, humorously high level of hypocrisy and bullshit running through it. It was hard to watch folks like Singh, a veteran of the reactionary ONDP 2014 provincial campaign, or the others who all went quietly along with Mulcair's explicitly centrist and Third Way debacle in the lead up to and during the 2015 federal election disaster, during this part. Ashton alone (and she has at least been very critical, after the fact, of the 2015 campaign) seemed to "get it" not just given the overall message she has been running on but when she noted that Corbyn had fought not only the establishment in the UK generally but also the establishment within his own Labour Party. She had also been campaigning with more rhetorically left polices even before Corbyn's unexpected reversal of fortune. Otherwise it was pretty clear that everyone else had really not learned much of anything.

In the "question periods" is where this debate became at least slightly memorable. These were Singh's weakest moments by far as he evaded questions posed by Ashton, Julian and Angus. When Ashton and Julian asked him to state clearly his position on Kinder Morgan he outright refused to with a silly song-and-dance about how he would make an announcement on it after talking with Horgan in BC and Notley in Alberta and trying to spin this as displaying leadership though one would have thought that anyone wanting to lead the federal NDP (whose federal caucus opposes Kinder Morgan) would have taken the time to look into and form an opinion on such a critical issue already. He also deflected Angus' question about whether he would run for a federal seat even if he lost the leadership vote by seeming to claim that his pledge to continue to campaign for the NDP both provincially and federally was a straight answer, which it was not.

Likewise Angus was really bad when Julian questioned him about free tuition and "pragmatism" coming off as smug and condescending while trying to give an unconvincing mini-lecture on what "aspirational' means. When Julian raised some numbers that have been floated for helping to finance it Angus was left looking like his answer had been little more than an ill-advised verbal cop-out.

Caron and Ashton had a notable exchange after Caron asked her why she was not backing his basic income plan. Ashton responded that the idea of a basic income was often supported by the right and while Caron then countered that his plan would be fundamentally different Ashton was very effective when she said that the better alternative was to fight for the broad expansion of the social safety net.

The closing statements were a return to theme, generally were unsurprising and, perhaps as a result, not terribly inspiring.

Ashton was good here giving a strong statement centred around the idea that "progressive politics based on principle and policies rather than polling and public relations is also good electoral politics" -- a point that seems to have been largely lost on the NDP for some time -- and forcefully conveying her sense that the party needed to shift left.

The fourth debate was the most interesting and informative to date and Ashton would seem to have been the most consistent and on message throughout it. It remained hampered again, though, by the continuing, clear pattern of raising debate questions that seem tailored to minimize debate.

See also: The winner of the Sudbury NDP debate was the terrible format

See also: NDP's second debate a more lively affair with stronger performances

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