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NDP federal leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair (second from right) responds to a question during an NDP leadership debate in Quebec City as Brian Topp (far left), Martin Singh (second from left) and Niki Ashton (right) look on. (Clemen Allard/The Canadian Press/Clemen Allard/The Canadian Press)
NDP federal leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair (second from right) responds to a question during an NDP leadership debate in Quebec City as Brian Topp (far left), Martin Singh (second from left) and Niki Ashton (right) look on. (Clemen Allard/The Canadian Press/Clemen Allard/The Canadian Press)

JOHN IBBITSON

In Quebec, NDP grapples with the centrist temptation Add to ...

NDP supporters face a stark choice over the next six weeks: to elect a leader with the best chance of entrenching the party’s recent political gains in Quebec and beyond, or to continue dreaming the social-democratic dream.

The former path would end with Thomas Mulcair or perhaps Brian Topp as the next leader; the path of dreams might take them to Peggy Nash or Paul Dewar.

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These four front-runners and three others debated foreign policy Sunday in Quebec City. The day was difficult for Mr. Dewar. (Though I am woefully unqualified to judge, the consensus within The Globe, among other media and on the Twitterverse was that Mr. Dewar was demonstrably uncomfortable during the debate.) He spoke haltingly at times, often relied on his notes and struggled when forced to improvise in response to challenges by rival candidates.

How Mr. Dewar hopes to hold Quebec, whose support for the NDP in the last election must be considered ephemeral, is hard to understand. French Canadians are understandably no less impatient with leaders who are not comfortable in their language than English Canadians are with those who can’t speak theirs.

But leadership is about more than linguistic fluency. The NDP must also decide whether it wants to govern the country by broadening its appeal to centrist voters or to continue carrying the torch of social and environmental activism.

Mr. Mulcair, who is perhaps the leading contender among the pragmatists, reminded the audience in Quebec City and on television of his experience as a cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s government – though that reminded everyone as well that he is a former Liberal.

While Mr. Topp, who is also from Quebec and who served as a former senior advisor to the late Jack Layton, stressed that the NDP is “one step from government,” having climbed the ladder that he helped construct to Official Opposition status.

Mr. Topp was thrown on the defensive, however, when both Mr. Dewar and Ms. Nash pointed out that he lacked a seat in the House of Commons. There is general agreement within the NDP that the sooner interim leader Nicole Turmel can be relieved of her duties, the happier everyone – including, no doubt, Ms. Turmel – will be.

Mr. Topp is also more bullish than Mr. Mulcair on raising taxes to pay for the NDP’s activist agenda, which could be a hard sell to voters not already committed to the party.

Ms. Nash, a Toronto MP, performed better in French that Mr. Dewar, though below the level of either Mr. Mulcair or Mr. Topp. She and Mr. Dewar stressed the need to restore Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeper not a warmonger, a leader in the fight against climate change rather than a cheerleader for the oil sands. This could be a challenging position to defend in the West, a traditional base of NDP support.

Nathan Cullen, a British Columbia MP whose leadership campaign hinges on co-operation with the Liberals, said that when Stephen Harper was in China, “he spoke only with pandas and not with Tibetans.”

The problem for Mr. Cullen is that none of the other candidates support talks with the Liberals, which Ms. Nash described as “an old party that has nothing to do with our future.”

That may be so, but before dismissing the Liberals as yesterday’s party, NDPers should perhaps consider two questions:

First, which is more likely to appeal to non-Conservative voters: the pragmatic if sometimes infuriatingly vague Liberal approach to foreign policy, energy policy, trade policy and tax policy, or the purity of the NDP’s pro-Kyoto, anti-pipeline, pro-tax, anti-free trade stand?

Second, who is most likely to galvanize voters who want to see the end of Stephen Harper: Bob Rae or Paul Dewar? Bob Rae or Tom Mulcair? Bob Rae or Peggy Nash? Bob Rae or Brian Topp?

Those may be the questions that matter most.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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