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From top left, eight of the nine contenders running to succeed Jack Layton as NDP leader are shown in a photo combination: Peggy Nash, Brian Topp, Thomas Mulcair, Paul Dewar, Robert Chisholm, Nathan Cullen, Romeo Saganash and Nikki Ashton. Not pictured: Martin Singh. (The Canadian Press)
From top left, eight of the nine contenders running to succeed Jack Layton as NDP leader are shown in a photo combination: Peggy Nash, Brian Topp, Thomas Mulcair, Paul Dewar, Robert Chisholm, Nathan Cullen, Romeo Saganash and Nikki Ashton. Not pictured: Martin Singh. (The Canadian Press)

Mild-mannered NDP leadership race so far avoids tough realities Add to ...

The NDP leadership campaign has clicked into second gear, and now there’s enough grist to give it a (hopefully) thoughtful review. A total of nine candidates are seeking the keys to Stornoway. Watching them in debate mode offers Canadians who aren’t members of the NDP a chance to hear their aspirations for the country. What are they likely to have observed to this point? Here’s my take:

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» All the candidates come off as well intentioned. If you are cynical about politicians, spending a few hours listening to these people will erase a bit of that cynicism, even if you might not agree with their views.

» Those watching the debates and looking for a knockout punch can stop now. No knockouts are likely, because no punches are thrown. The candidates are determined that their party must look like it is made up of people who respect each other, in contrast with the UFC-style leadership fights of the Liberals.

» The discussion of policy issues has been articulate, but the TV version of it is inevitably narrow and a half-inch deep. This is partly a function of nine contenders trying to share precious TV seconds, of course, and can be offset by the policy papers the candidates are putting out. But for those voters unwilling to make that commitment of time and effort, few compelling ideas seem to be emerging. Not yet, anyway.

Is this leadership campaign going well for the NDP, in terms of consolidating and broadening its base? I expected it would, but now I’m less sure. Here’s a few reasons why I feel that way:

» The economy is hugely topical, but Canadians see the economy as a more complex, more global matter than ever before. Thoughtful mainstream voters are finding themselves following decisions being made not only in Ottawa, but also in Rome, London, Paris, Athens, Berlin, Dublin, Brussels, and Washington. Policy in Beijing matters too. The NDP candidates haven’t been talking much about these global crosswinds, but voters will ultimately want a government led by someone who looks ready to play on that stage.

» Canada’s economy has held up relatively well in a challenging word, in no small part because of our ability to sell our products abroad. There’s not much talk among the candidates about expanding trade, a fair bit of dismay about past trade agreements, and plenty of talk about applying the brakes to some of our exports. These arguments may strike a chord with NDP stalwarts, but others might wonder if there isn’t more nostalgia and ideology than sound planning for tomorrow.

» Canada is struggling with the largest deficit in the country’s history. Ontario has a worrisome imbalance. Everyone knows big cuts in government spending are coming. Simultaneously, pressures to find the money we will need to keep health care available and education affordable are growing more intense. These choices are topical, current and if ever there was a moment when the NDP must demonstrate that it has a handle on the math, not just the compassion, it is now. So far, the candidates have talked relatively little about fiscal issues, and when they have, the focus has largely been on increasing taxes.

As a group the leadership discussion seems often to be about greening the economy and making it fairer more than about growing it. Good ideas, of course. But recession-nervous voters want to know that ideas for greening the economy are pragmatic and achievable, not just a wish list. That case hasn’t been made yet. On the equity question, a sizeable group of Canadians feel marginalized – but nowhere near 99 per cent of the population. It’s actually closer to the size of the core vote of the NDP. Most people want a focus on more growth and more equity. They believe “all boats can rise” rather than see the economy as a zero sum game, where for one person to do better another must do worse.

Of course, this campaign is about winning the largest share of support among the rank and file of the New Democratic Party. But maybe it shouldn’t have to be so inconvenient that everyone else is able to look on. So far, unless you are someone who has always been inclined to vote for it, the party might look as though your problems may not be their priority. For better or for worse, this reflects a central truth about the NDP: Many New Democrats like the idea of running a government but hate that they may have to compromise on some ideology to do so. The NDP worries as much about the risks of achieving power as the opportunities it would present.

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