Let me begin by saying that we are at an historical moment in Canadian history. We are being besieged by an increasingly draconian corporatist, neo-conservative and neoliberal Conservative Party government which is far worse than Mulroney’s free trade corporatist “Progressive” Conservatives from a generation ago. This government is an ecological criminal in foreign affairs, obsessed with domestic surveillance and mongers war.
We are at a time of heightened awareness of the illegitimacy of the first-past-the-post electoral system that has allowed such extremist doctrine to have a majority of power in the country with less than 40% of the popular vote.
This is a time where we can see in the short term future irrevocable decay in progressive Canadian social institutions: public education and healthcare, the rule of law, the flowering of democracy and hope, international moral leadership, and the supremacy of integrity over contempt.
Last year was a time of a kind of populist uprising that orbited Jack Layton and manifested in the Orange Crush. And while the party loyalists celebrated unprecedented success for the party, the country suffered a tragedy as Stephen Harper congealed his haughty minority into a majority while dealing a near fatal blow to his hated Liberal party. The cost of NDP success was five years of a Harper majority. Note I don’t say four years because constitutionally, he is allowed five before having to call an election and do you really think he’d pull the plug at four?
Our electoral system was adequate in the 19th century when there were essentially two parties, women and first nations couldn’t vote and all was “good” in the world. These days, it is on par with the drunk chauvinist, bigoted uncle who hits on your girlfriend at your sister’s wedding.
Luckily we are seeing evidence in recent years of an interest in a more credible electoral system. The Conservative Party’s increasing contempt for democracy, reflected only in part by two prorogations, has led to more creative thinking about defending and improving our Canada. And even though many correctly critique the electoral reform movement by arguing that political parties are complicit in maintaining our current corrupt one, we have seen attempts this decade to find ways to cooperate with others on areas of common ground to do that very Canadian thing: compromise to build something wonderful, like a better nation.
I even thought we had a moment 3.5 years ago when we could have crashed Harper’s government, install Jack Layton as an interim prime minister and pass electoral reform legislation to prevent the tyranny of another majority created by a minority of the popular vote. With Harper proroguing parliament to save his contemptuous fiscal plan, and with an as-yet unconfirmed Liberal party leader and general agreement between the Bloc, NDP and Liberals on how to move the country forward in a crisis, travelling to Rideau Hall to offer an alternative to Harper would have left Layton as the only viable prime minister. The first piece of legislation could have been electoral reform to ensure no more radical right wing majorities without the consent of 50%+1 of the people.
I want to build something. I want to collaborate with people with integrity to create a better world for our children when we are being threatened with assaults to our climate and our social structure such that we now worry that the next generation will not have it better than ours.
Then Jack Layton died.
And while he was not perfect [who is], he ended up surfing a wave of hope that needed a leader to inspire people to think beyond themselves. Then there were all those chalk messages in Nathan Phillips Square.
Now we need a new leader. It isn’t Jack, but someone who can reflect his legacy, but also advance it into a new era of progressive opposition, which should not be opposition, but building a social movement to replace this cynical, contemptuous government we are stuck with for more than four more years, but hopefully less if it implodes under the weight of its own disdain for democracy.
I started by thinking about the qualities I wanted to see in the next leader and first NDP prime minister. Then I refined them and ranked them.
These are the criteria I have used to evaluate the candidates. Let’s see how they did over the last few months with all the debates and member engagement.
All of the candidates are intelligent. They are also bold, brave and self-assured. No policy lightweight could make it even to the entry fee.
Progressive vision: social, political, economic, ecological justice
Generally I see lots of this. Notable exceptions include Mulcair’s support of free trade, anti-unionist stance as an elected Quebec Liberal, and his stance on the middle east that isn’t exactly progressive with respect to competing narratives, “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances.” I also have not seem anything from Singh that distinguishes him from the left or centre-left wing of the federal Liberal Party.
Cullen demonstrates a social inclusion including with respect to Canada’s relationship with the first peoples. His plan to use electoral reform tactics within the current first-past-the-post system reflects a willingness to cooperate politically with allies [notwithstanding the right wing of the Liberal party] that seek to remove the ongoing threat to Canada from the Conservative Party. His approach to addressing climate breakdown and domestic food insecurity combines well with progressive economic policies to create a sustainable economy for Canada.
All candidates have done a fine job of carving out policy areas to focus on in an attempt to both appeal to whichever party base they wish to embrace, while at the same time trying to distinguish themselves from each other.
All candidates are sufficiently bilingual to be able to represent a nation with two official languages.
I find that all appear to be earnest and upstanding with respect to their individual stances. Singh asking Topp why he lied about a policy stance reflected two things: style of discourse and a controversial discussion about a policy assertion. Those two items have been conflating. I’m not sure how they’ll settle over the next eight days.
I find Ashton to be energetic and inspiring, but not as engaging as I would hope as she has spoken less extemporaneously than I expected from her based on how I’ve seen her communicate in the House. I find Mulcair to be committed to his vision of policies, but his fiscal and foreign policy conservatism dissuade me from being inspired by that commitment, as well as the new direction he would try to take the party based on those stances.
Inclusive of all of our cultures
I have seen nothing to indicate that any candidate would be exclusionary, but I have seen Cullen’s track record on working with First Nations for progressive ends. Saganash also scored high in this area as does Ashton.
Despite leaning towards Cullen before the debates began, I wanted to watch all the debates to see who can demonstrate self-confidence in that crucible. I found Mulcair and Cullen to be the most confident and at ease with themselves. However I also saw a pattern of condescending and dismissive behaviour in Mulcair towards Ashton. I see enough of this disdain and contempt from the Conservative Party, that I expect a far higher standard of respect among NDP leadership candidates, at the very least to reflect the no heckling tone in the House that Jack Layton instituted last year. So I see Mulcair’s self-confidence spill over into arrogance and superiority far too much.
Cullen, in contrast, carried an air of humility and regarded others well and showed how he could engage with others’ ideas without demeaning them as people. That reflects a kind of self-confidence that allows a person to not need to prop themself up by belittling others.
Ability to grow the party
Moving into more subjective intangibles, I’m looking for leadership that can do the kind of thing Jack Layton did last year: appeal to a broader portion of the country than the loyal members. Being a populist is an oversimplification, but a leader who has the capacity to unite progressives across the country on a national mission to save and improve our social structures requires someone who can communicate powerful and clear messages. I have seen Cullen argue for his electoral strategy very effectively in the last few months. This willingness to put the good of the country before a more insular party-first stance is the kind of thing that will actually grow the party by allowing others outside the party to see us as a viable tool to make meaningful political change. Through this process, newcomers will be able to see party policies in a new light that is not pre-spun by the Conservatives or Liberals.
Topp, Dewar and Nash all struggled to an extent in the early debates. I wanted to reserve judgement until everyone had a chance to use all the debates to show what kind of growth they are capable of. All three improved, but not as much as I was hoping. Singh and Ashton were very polished in their delivery, but they stayed too scripted or bound to their talking points to be able to be more human. Mulcair and Cullen had the best delivery and clarity in their ideas. Cullen had the advantage of being a more engaging personality than Mulcair, however.
Ability to debate
Being a sitting MP aided several of the candidates, and while there are other criteria, being an elected MP provides some advantages. Singh and Topp, both unelected, had some weaknesses. Singh lacked grace in his debating style and Topp at times was less than clear when engaging with the others. And while Mulcair is the most traditionally refined debater, he also had some old school demeaning tone that, while “part of politics”, is a part of political discourse that turns people off political participation. Cullen was clear, direct, insightful and engaged when engaging with others.
Charm, charisma, ability to lead so people want to follow
I don’t like the word charm, but so much of what I saw in Jack Layton in the last few years was a kind of charm. I’ve seen a shallow, transparent form of it in many other politicians that creeps me out. But Layton carried a kind of gravitas with his charm. Charisma, however, is not just about looking good to people, it is an engaging personality that is critical for someone to be a leader of people. I haven’t met all the candidates, but I’ve heard from people who have met various ones that they are charismatic enough to lead a party, a progressive social movement and even the country. I don’t doubt that. But I wanted to see that in the debates and the other engagement opportunities.
Cullen stands out ahead of the rest in this category. In some ways this category is a combination of several others. When someone excels in enough of them, they are a whole package. Mulcair certainly has a smoothness, but I know enough of his policy to not want to follow where he wants to go. Also, in person I’ve found Mulcair to be more disconnected than engaging on the human level.
Ability to credibly counter Stephen Harper
I’ve sat in the prime minister’s seat in the House. And in the seat directly across. It was a tangible manifestation of decades of watching the House on TV. The House doesn’t revolve around the speaker’s chair; I’ve sat in that one too. It looks like it does, but the gravity of the room is centered in the prime minister’s chair. And the focal point of accountability is directly across from that where the leader of the opposition sits. I have pictured every single one of the candidates in that seat and connected that with my memory of sitting, and standing, there. Starting just days after March 24, with a budget about to drop, whoever wins this race is going to have to beat Harper. And while anyone would have a learning curve, we need someone who can engage on the policy, on the human side of political consequences of policy, on the Conservative Party’s spin and tactics of deflection, and ultimately we need someone who can present a credible alternative to Harper.
Cullen is the best person to be able to reflect the humanity of Canadians, our commitment to each other, and our inherent hope for a better lot for all of us, particularly those most vulnerable. These are the qualities that our next national leader must possess. And in less than two weeks that person needs to stand up to Stephen Harper and show the country how anti-social and cold he is by presenting a leader who wants to lead us all to a better place. The rising arc of recognition that Cullen received as the debates went on showed how many more people saw that kind of quality in Cullen. I was hoping to see more of it from Topp, Dewar and Nash, but Cullen started off as competent and continued to impress as the others did not improve as much as they perhaps could have.
Ability to deliver one-liners and media sound bites.
I included this category under some duress. I am intensely opposed to sound bite media oversimplification of complex policies, or even simple policies that have complex consequences on millions of Canadians or people around the world. But until we can get a more thoughtful, less-profit oriented media, and a more educated, critical populace, we will need a leader who is quotable, even pithy at times. Ignatieff and Dion and Martin struggled with this. Jack Layton did not. Leaders need the policy gravitas combined with an engaging personality to frame an issue into a sound bite. Harper excels at it because he says so little with so few words, thus achieving a kind of spun, oversimplified message within the allotted seconds. We need a leader who can convey a message with the same short clarity, but with enough humanity and Everyman presence so that the prime minister will look like a zombie in comparison. This is a job for Cullen.
The next eight days, and beyond
I’m voting live next weekend so I’m not sending in a preferential ballot. If I were, Cullen would be #1, Mulcair would be #7 and Singh would be #6. Saganash would have been #2.
Even though the debates are over, I have not closed my mind to how the convention will play out. Candidates have opportunities to continue to define themselves over the next eight days. Some may risk some of their integrity by jockeying or spinning in certain ways. Others will have opportunities to enhance their gravitas and elevate the tone of this whole process.
I’m looking for grace in the next week or so. I’m looking for candidates to behave prime ministerial. I’m looking for someone I can be proud to vote for.
And because I’m voting in real time next weekend, I expect and hope to vote for Cullen in every ballot. But if he gets knocked off at some point, I’m going to consider which candidate has the ability to build the party and the progressive social movement I want to see restore Canada to a position of domestic and international integrity, and ultimately be a leader in establishing a national dialogue between “Canada” and the first peoples, to be a beacon of hope in creating a post-carbon economy, in a world of increasing respect and integrity of international relations.
And I hope you all consider the gravity of your vote next weekend. Our grandchildren deserve to hear about our vote and see that we cast it with integrity. We owe it to them.
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