Federal NDP leadership race explainer

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  December 8, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

All eyes will be on Vancouver this weekend, as B.C.’s New Democratic Party convenes – and would-be successors to the late federal leader Jack Layton are on the hunt for elusive-but-all-important supporters in this province.

B.C. hosts more than one-third of NDP members – 31,456 of 95,000 Canada-wide – so this weekend is a chance for contenders to show off their plumage on the West Coast.

The weekend is packed with candidates’ pub nights and meet-and-greets, culminating in a leadership town hall at the convention centre on Saturday afternoon, one of six leading up to the March 24 NDP membership vote. That vote will be one-member-one-vote, flattening an internal process historically weighted towards union representatives. Candidates – who paid $15,000 to run — max out at a $500,000 spending limit. For now, candidates are vying for members support – and to sign up new card-carrying New Democrats before the Feb. 18 cut-off.

One of the candidates considered a front-runner — particularly looking at endorsements — is NDP establishment favourite Brian Topp, who helped Vancouver Observer’s plumage-and-hunting metaphor along:

“You’ve got to hunt where the ducks are,” he told journalists back in October. “The ducks are here in British Columbia.”

So Duck Hunt jokes aside, who, exactly, are the nine contenders to replace ‘Smiling’ Jack Layton? We take a look from inside the NDP vote hunting hide.

Niki Ashton, 29

Who: Elected MP for Churchill in 2008 and 2011, Ashton is the youngest woman in the current Parliament.

Big issue?  Being “strong voice for equality,” according to her campaign materials.

Who’s backing?  When asked who their second-choice for leader would be, several top contenders chose Ashton. She’s lined up Delta-North MLA GuyGentner, and a slew of Manitoba MLAs – the province’s ministers of trade, culture and transportation, Aboriginal and northern affairs and five others. She’s also got the backing of key Metis and First Nations leaders in Manitoba.
Robert Chisholm, 54

Who: Long-time Halifax Atlantic MP from 1991 to 2003, Chrisholm went on to become NovaScotia NDP leader in 1996 until his federal election in May.

Big issue? A strong, stable and growing NDP – he cites his experience in opposition and in power as evidence he’s ready to be Prime Minister.

Who’s backing? Ryan Cleary, Newfoundland and Labrador MP, and the CUPE union in that province.

Who’s not?  Chisholm does not speak French, a skill essential to wooing Quebec voters.

Nathan Cullin, 39

Who: MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, nearSmithers, B.C.

Big issues? Climate change, cross-party cooperation (including electoral alliances), opposes tar sands; restarting the Canadian Wheat Board, and reform of the electoral system away from current first-past-the-post system.

Who’s backing? Four B.C. MLAs – Robin Austin, Gary Coons, Doug Donaldson and Norm Macdonald. Was awarded “Favourite Up-and-Comer Rookie Politician” by federal MPs in 2004.

Quirky or Quotable: Has stated he “represents the land as much as the people,” a belief he learned from Tsimshian, Nisga’a and Haida elders in his riding. He once challenged Liberal environment minister Stéphane Dion to take a blood test to demonstrate environmental toxins.

A critic of tar sands pipelines and free trade, Cullin said in a House of Commons debate on the pipelines: “If that is the member’s idea of a good economy for the future, I loathe to think what else he would do to the manufacturing sector, the auto sector and the aerospace sector, sectors that we built up with good government policy, not with this mantra of free trade for all and everyone will have a chicken in their pot.”
Paul Dewar, 48

Who: The Ottawa-Centre MP who succeeded EdBroadbent, Dewar is NDP’s foreign affairs critic and a former leader of the Ottawa teachers union.

Big issue? Electoral reform (Dewar sits on the board of Fair Vote Canada, which campaigns for proportional representation and finance limits).

Who’s backing?
Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan, Labour Minister Jennifer Howard, Housing Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross, Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby, Finance Minister Stan Struthers and MLAs Greg Dewar (Selkirk) and DaveGaudreau (St. Norbert).

Health Minister Theresa Oswald, Minister of Industry, Energy and Mines Dave Chomiak and MLA Kevin Chief also support Dewar.

Who’s not?  Topp singled Dewar out for not costing the promises in his campaign program, though commentators have speculated that this was more likely Topp staking a position in relation to Mulcair. “Great plan,” Topp said of his environmental proposals. “But how do you propose to pay for it?” Dewar does not speak French, a skill essential to wooing Quebec voters, but insists he is taking lessons.

Quirky or Quotable: His mother was Marion Dewar, an NDP MP and former Mayor of Ottawa.

Thomas Mulcair, 57

Who: Deputy Leader of the federal NDP and MP for Outremont, Québec. Came to Canadian prominence during the “Orange Crush” inQuébec, where he guided the campaign and supported many rookie candidates. Boasts being elected six times to office – first as Québec’sMinister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks under the Liberal government. He crossed the floor in 2006 to the NDP.

Big issue? The environment. A cautious fiscal approach. Attracting young voters.

Who’s backing? 29 Quebec MPs – many of whom Mulcair supported during the federal election. Former Governor General and Manitoba premier EdSchreyer. Macleans magazine: “His eloquence and command of detail made him easily the most polished political performer” in the first debate.

Who’s not? National Post describes his “reputed blowtorch temper … just this side of an erupting volcano.” Some in the party allege Mulcair is fiscally conservative and opportunistic in moving to NDP from Liberals: “If that places me on the right side of the spectrum,” he said. “I would dare say that it places me on the spectrum of somebody who can look at the Canadian public in the next election and say, ‘You can trust us to actually run the government of a G7 country.”‘

Quirky or Quotable: “Let’s just say I’ve never been shy about going into the corners and I usually come out with the puck,” he has boasted. But Mulcairfound himself in hot water on CBC’s Power and Politics after obliquely suggesting that the U.S. had not come clean about the raid that killed Osamabin Laden – and mistakenly referred to the Al-Qaeda leader as “Obama.”

Peggy Nash, 60

Who: Toronto’s Peggy Nash – a favourite among many activists on NDP’s left – is MP forParkdale-High Park and a former president of the party. She is also NDP’s finance critic.

Big issues? Equality, women’s issues, foreign policy, human rights, reducing corporate influence.

Who’s backing? Three-term Victoria MP and house speaker Denise Savoie; Newfoundland and Labrador NDP leader Lorraine Michael and former federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough.

Quirky or Quotable: “The countries that have truly succeeded in modern global commerce haven’t handed over all decision-making power to corporations. They’ve recognized successful development needs all stakeholders pulling in the same direction – government, business, unions, universities,” she said in a statement.

Romeo Saganash, 49

Who: Saganash, MP for the northern Quebec riding of Abitibi-James Bay-Nunavik-Eeyou, is the only Indigenous person in the NDP race. A residential school survivor keenly involved in Cree politics – founding the Cree National Youth Council and being deputy Grand Chief of the Cree grand council – Saganash was a core negotiator for the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Big issues? The environment and Indigenous rights – he said he aims to “balance sustainable economic growth with our duty as stewards of the land.”

Who’s backing? He is supported by First Nations leaders as well as non-Aboriginal people who hope to see Aboriginal issues reach greater prominence, particularly as reserves face the spotlight of a housing and health crisis.

Martin Singh, age unknown (either 38 or 39)

Who: Describing himself as a “pro-business member of the NDP,” this MusquodoboitHarbour, Nova Scotia pharmacist and businessman serves in the armed forces and also maintains an office in Surrey, B.C., where is courting supporters in the Sikh community.

Big issues?  Entrepreneurship and business, health care and a nationalpharmacare plan, the environment — “and leadership itself,” he said in a statement.

Who’s backing? Some more business-minded New Democrats, as well as supporters he had been building in the South Asian community.

Who doesn’t? Most consider him a fringe candidate.

Brian Topp, 51

Who: His last name may put him at the bottom of the ballot (it would be the opposite if ballots went by first names), but Longueuil, Quebec’s candidate is considered – alongside Mulcair and possibly Nash – a top contender for the leadership despite not holding a seat in Parliament. Elected NDP president in June, he co-developed the party’s 2011 election platform, which saw the NDP rise to Official Opposition status. He’s directed many campaigns behind the scenes – and it’s the backstage where Topp had earned his high ranking among the party establishment.

Big issue?  Economic equality and increased redistribution from taxes on the wealthiest.

Who’s backing? Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, former B.C. NDP Leader Carole James, former B.C. finance minister Joy MacPhail, 17 members of the B.C. provincial legislature, and 5 of B.C.’s 12 MPs — including deputy NDP leader Libby Davies, of Vancouver.

Who doesn’t?  The Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “Brian Topp is proposing a radical program of huge tax hikes,” they wrote on their website. “Like colleagues in Socialist International, Topp believes the solution to the worldwide debt crisis (caused by overspending) is higher taxes.”

Quirky or Quotable: “It is time for a national government that is going to push in the other direction, that is going to commit itself seriously to building a more equal country,” he said in a Tyee interview. “That includes the tax system, which has numerous reverse Robin Hood measures in it that are designed to benefit people who need help the least.”

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