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NDP leadership candidates Martin Singh, from left, Niki Ashton, Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash take part in a debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday March 11, 2012. (CP)
NDP leadership candidates Martin Singh, from left, Niki Ashton, Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash take part in a debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday March 11, 2012. (CP)

John Doyle: Television

I watched the NDP leadership debate. Someone had to Add to ...

Sunday was a lovely day here in the centre of the universe. The sun was shining, and the temperature climbing all day. Outside, people were giddy – that is, giddy in a way that Toronna is known far and wide for being giddy.

A man with a banjo played with great gusto on the street. There isn’t a day that cannot be made better by banjo music, was my feeling. But the banjo man’s song about the troubles of the world was a bit dreary. Up in Kensington Market, a young woman in a fabulous white dress wielded a hula hoop and danced, just for the heck of it, as a bunch of fellas banged on drums.

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All grand and good. But what bothered me was my duty. I had decided to watch the NDP leadership debate on CPAC. Listen, someone’s got to do it. It is a known fact that this apparently ceaseless and slow-moving shindig will produce the Leader of the Opposition, and heaven knows we need one of those.

A long series of TV debates is all the rage these days in the politics racket. The Republicans have been having a leadership debate every few days since May of last year, I think. And little wonder. TV performance and tactics win elections in the end.

As television drama, a leadership debate makes golf look wild and crazy. But if we look closely and concentrate, bits can be deeply revealing and entertaining. It's the marketing oomph that matters most with the iconography of these staged speeches, because what come next in politics are the photo-ops and, of course, the TV commercials.

Television isn't, you know, rocket science. Turn up, wear camera-friendly clothes, act in a genial manner, smile, make your point pithily and never, ever whine or look threatening.

The first thing I noted about Sunday’s kneedipper TV debate, the last in a long series, was that few of the candidates seemed to grasp the TV thing and its dynamics. The overall topic was “opportunities for young and new Canadians.” Barbara Yaffe was the moderator and the rules were ridiculously complex, with candidates’ responses and the to-and-fro limited to mere seconds in some instances.

The impressions I gained were, like those of most people in such circumstances, instant but probably lingering. Nathan Cullen seemed sullen. Young Niki Ashton was a bit muddled, all pluck and no luck in scoring points. Paul Dewar seemed to get a lot of his info from cab drivers. That kind of thing. Unfair, yes, but that’s television for you.

The turning point was when moderator Yaffe was compelled to exclaim, “I want to remind you all to differentiate yourselves.” This was a fair point. In policy proposals and ideas, the candidates all seemed to be singing in harmony from the same kneedipper hymn book.

So I concentrated too. In truth, differences in policy details were difficult to discern. Green economy. Sustainable economy. Smart economy. Mind you, Brian Topp gave the impression – somewhat novel – that he thinks all young people should get jobs in the arts and have television careers.

The meat of the event, though, is about leadership and the way forward for the New Democratic Party. On these matters, and in particular the TV presence and smarts of the candidates, the impressions were stark. Thomas Mulcair, the alleged front-runner, is a bit of an alpha-male politician, cut from the same cloth as so many others. The hint of a short temper emerges in his statements and answers. On TV, affable he ain’t. He’s good with the stinging remark in the House of Commons but that’s meaningless in the glare of a general election campaign. He has the humourless force of a man whose ego has never been pricked. Topp’s strength, on the other hand, is affability. Too much of it, perhaps, to the point where he seems nice and very smart, but a bit flat-footed on TV.

Peggy Nash’s presence, measured tone and nuanced answers had the strongest resonance. There’s a fortitude and pragmatism projected in her onscreen persona that’s vivid and, memorably, she uses wit, not put-downs. There’s the air of a woman who has seen and heard plenty of male bluster but knows that bluster doesn’t get the job done. Interestingly, there were seven candidates speaking and debating, and some barely registered at all.

A series of TV debates is a darn good idea when choosing a new leader for a party. TV is the vehicle that takes a leader to power or oblivion, in the end. In this NDP leadership race, too little attention has been paid to TV presence. What the race needs is more sass. Fewer banjo songs about woe, more hula hoop, if you know what I mean. Those who vote in this thing should exhibit some caution – we’ll be stuck with the winner on TV for a very long time.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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