Thursday, August 3, 2017

Subdued NDP leadership debate as three of the hopefuls spar in Victoria

The sixth official NDP leadership debate took place Wednesday night in Victoria and while not a complete reversion to the tedium of some of the initial encounters it was a relatively subdued affair.

In part, sadly,  this was due to the absence of Charlie Angus who remained at his seriously ill sister's side as she receives palliative care. Angus did send a short video explaining his absence and touching on the themes of his campaign which was met with warm applause.

But it was also due to the continued issues around debate format such as the insistence on no applause until the end (the moderator even bizarrely seemed to admonish the crowd for applauding Angus' video) as well as the fact that many of the questions again seemed to be ones where there would be broad consensus as opposed to issues -- and they definitely do exist such as when it comes to personal income tax policy or foreign policy -- where there might actually be substantive differences.

Indeed, as a result, the "open debate" sections and the debate overall saw little debate. In a moment of well played understatement Guy Caron noted that this had made the leadership campaign sometimes "boring" as a result since all of the candidates often seem to agree on so many issues. Given that Niki Ashton has in previous outings (though not so much this one) tried to set her campaign apart as the only one advocating for fundamental change, there was also likely a strategic aim to Caron's comment.

In fact, just about the sole time where there were any real fireworks came when Ashton confronted Jagmeet Singh on comments he made as an MPP in Ontario during the debates around the new progressive sex-ed curriculum in the province put forward by the Liberals in 2015. Given his statements at the time, a video of him speaking at a rally in front of a banner saying "Ontario Parents Oppose Sex-Ed Agenda" and the anger about his seeming position among some in the LGBT community during the debates in the province, this certainly seemed a fair point, but Ashton was unable to really push it and Singh stated that he had really been onside with the new curriculum all along and was an unequivocal supporter of LGBT rights.

Caron also confronted Singh again on the issue of the universality of Old Age Security which he described as a "birthright" of all Canadians. Caron noted that the clawbacks of OAS had begun under Mulroney and were a part of a broader neo-liberal agenda as well as that the NDP had always been in favour of reinstating OAS' universality fully. He asked if Singh accepted the neo-liberal abandonment of universality to which Singh replied that he supported "a universal guarantee of seniors not living in poverty" which was something of a dodge.

Otherwise there was little that was either new or substantive policy-wise. This was to such an extent that Ashton actually mentioned Caron's recent call for a shorter workweek -- a part of his broader "Workers First: 21st Century Jobs and Growth"  plan that he also failed to bring up at all -- more than he did!

Ashton was strong at points as when she said that Justin Trudeau could not really be a feminist while selling arms to a country like Saudi Arabia and when she called him a "cheerleader" for trade deals that benefited corporations and the wealthy but not workers. She also brought up her plan to spend $10 billion to build 40,000 units of social housing annually across the country and mentioned her comprehensive personal and corporate tax plan while opposing any notion of raising the GST saying that "regressive taxes" were "not the way to go".

Caron interestingly signaled a willingness to possibly raise the GST noting the widespread use of sales taxes to generate revenue by governments worldwide. Caron also restated his strong commitment to electoral reform and his pledge that were he to be elected Prime Minister the first bill he would introduce would be one that would bring a form of proportional representation to Canada. When speaking of how he felt his basic income plan would help artists he said "having a belly full helps with the creative process" and had some other rhetorical zingers as when he referred to the "faux progressive Trudeau".

Singh came out swinging on the Kinder Morgan pipeline calling the decision of Trudeau to proceed with it a "betrayal of the people of B.C.".  He had powerful moments when he called for the opioid crisis to be declared a "national health crisis" and when, talking of the issue of assisted suicide, he noted that "a right is meaningless if you have no access to it". Singh fared well in Victoria overall and, whatever one thinks of it as a line, was the most successful he has been to date in framing himself as the "growth" candidate who can deliver the party to power which he sees as the primary objective that the party "owes" to its supporters and the people of Canada.

On a disappointing note all the candidates, Ashton included, continued to signal support for the NDP's rather extreme and stifling version of caucus unity despite the consolidation of power in the leader's office that this has led to under Layton and Mulcair and despite the terrible examples of what happened to MPs like Bill Siksay and Libby Davies when they refused to fully tow the line on certain issues. (Caron did allow for a vague exception for anything going against the "core principles of the party"). While parties and leaders obviously have the right to assert that some fundamental positions are not open for debate (such as abortion rights or marriage equality rights) this continued allegiance to a forced collegial unity more broadly is deeply problematic and undermines any idea of trying to democratize the party or to build it as a democratic movement.

The next debate is August 27 in Montreal and will be in French. This debate comes after the cutoff for new voting members joining the NDP which is August 17.

You can watch the debate in its entirety here. 

See also: Saskatoon NDP debate sees testy exchanges and a strong outing from Angus

See also: Ashton strong in lively Toronto NDP leadership debate

1 comment:

  1. Singh also advocated decriminalization and harm reduction for dealing with the opioid crisis in Canada, which struck me as very significant.