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NDP contenders take the gloves off in Winnipeg debate Add to ...

Clear divisions are forming between the candidates vying to lead the federal New Democrats – not chasms, but cracks that are becoming increasingly apparent as the day of decision draws near.

The seven people who remain in the race were prompted during a debate in Winnipeg on Sunday to ask questions of any of their rivals that would highlight significant policy distinctions.

Although Nathan Cullen, a British Columbia MP, murmured at one point that it was “such a difficult thing” to be critical of the other contenders, most of the debaters seemed to relish the demand to drop the gloves.

MPs Niki Ashton and Peggy Nash both opted to take on Thomas Mulcair, the acknowledged front-runner who helped his party surge in Quebec, over his proposals for renewal that would abandon some traditional party culture.

Ms. Ashton objected to Mr. Mulcair’s description of the NDP as a party that excelled at developing boilerplate slogans but is not prepared to say what it would do differently. She said she is proud to be working for “ordinary Canadians,” one of the slogans Mr. Mulcair had derided.

Mr. Mulcair replied that it is time to stop repeating “rote” things from the past. “So yes, my approach is slightly different from yours,” he said. “I would not repeat things from 50 years ago, I would modernize our language, modernize our approach …”

Ms. Nash complained that Mr. Mulcair had accused the public of failing to renew itself.

“In the last eight years under Jack’s [Layton] leadership, I think we’ve been through quite a bit of renewal,” said Ms. Nash. “… We’ve had breakthroughs in Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, in the West and we’ve got the support of 4.5 million people. Don’t you think that proved that our party had been renewing itself?”

Mr. Mulcair said in response that many of the party’s policies show it is still rooted in the past and that it has failed to connect with many of the people who share its goals and values.

“We did get 4.5 million votes but we are still far from being able to form a government,” he said. “The only way we are going to be able to do that is to go beyond our traditional base, refresh our way of approaching these issues. We’re not going to defeat Stephen Harper with a slogan.”

The long campaign to succeed Mr. Layton has, to this point, been largely non-combative. Previous debates have been exercises in collegiality with the candidates demonstrating an unwillingness to rip into the policies of people who are their political colleagues – and whose supporters could ultimately be the key to their own victories under the preferential ballot system.

But, with the March 24 vote now just weeks away, it is time to distinguish themselves from the pack.

All of the candidates except for Ms. Ashton and Martin Singh, a Nova Scotia businessman, were targeted for criticism at some point in the debate.

Mr. Cullen’s plan to co-operate with Liberals at the riding level in the next election as a way of defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper took pointed shots from both Ottawa MP Paul Dewar and former party president Brian Topp who said many Liberal voters would simply drift to the Conservatives, creating even better conditions for the Tories.

Mr. Cullen singled out Mr. Dewar for making announcements that he said had not been fully costed.

And Mr. Topp wanted Ms. Nash to provide more details of her economic policy – specifically, he wanted to know if she would divert all revenues from a cap and trade system for carbon to greening the economy, and whether she would commit to a tax structure that would make incomes more equal. Mr. Topp has proposed tax increases for wealthier Canadians.

Ms. Nash replied that top wage earners should pay more than they currently do. But “I am not going to throw out speculative numbers and feed the Conservative spin machine.”

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