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gary mason

You have to hand it to the federal New Democrats, they know how to keep things under wraps when they want to. As a rule, however, you don't want a party leadership race to be among them.

The NDP are staging what may be the most boring leadership race ever mounted, anywhere. You would think, given their lot in life, they'd be trying to bring some excitement to their party, to rally some interest around their product and the wondrous potential of their next brand manager. But no, this is the NDP after all. The party has always moved to its own baffling, quixotic beat.

I was at a dinner party last week at which no one could name a single person running for the NDP leadership. (A few didn't know there was even a race under way). And these were people who keep abreast of the news and have more than a passing interest in politics.

The truth is, few Canadians could tell you who Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, Peter Julian, Charlie Angus or Jagmeet Singh are. It is not a list that thrives on name recognition. Then again, the federal Conservatives had 14 people running for their leadership and ended up choosing Andrew Scheer, also someone who left Canadians scratching their heads in doubt.

The Conservative race also managed to cast a shadow over the NDP selection process. Now, the New Democrats have the spotlight to themselves, just in time for summer – when no one is thinking about politics. At least the next leader won't be chosen until October, so the candidates do have September to light the country on fire with their ideas.

Although that could be a challenge.

So far, none of the five candidates has had anything particularly noteworthy to say. It has been variations on the same tired NDP tropes: income inequality; poverty reduction; the working-class poor; affordable housing; the homeless. No one denies these are important issues. But where is the captivating vision that breathes new life and offers fresh solutions to these age-old problems?

Not that the five candidates are without merit. Mr. Julian, from B.C., has been around a long time and is well-liked on Parliament Hill. His brave idea is eliminating postsecondary tuition fees. Mr. Caron, a former labour economist from Quebec, is promoting a guaranteed basic income. Mr. Angus, from Timmins, Ont., is trying to win as a socialist punk rocker with a heart. Some people could dig that.

Ms. Ashton, from Manitoba, is the youngest candidate at 34. She is the furthest left of the group and self describes as an "intersectional eco-feminist." I'll get back to you on what, precisely, that means. The most intriguing entry in the race is Mr. Singh, 38, the turban and kirpan-wearing Sikh MPP from Greater Toronto. He certainly has the style and swagger to take on a Justin Trudeau, but no one has been knocked out so far by his ideas.

The NDP finds itself at a critical moment in its history – although when does it not. It seems to be a statement made every four years or so as it struggles with the existential question: Who are we? A protest movement happy to advocate for progressive policies or a mainstream political party willing to compromise some of its beliefs in order to run a complicated, multifaceted country?

I'm not sure there is even a consensus among the candidates on that question.

The problem they have right now is Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, who gambled on a platform in the last election that was even left of the NDP – and won convincingly. Where does that leave the NDP to go now? Ms. Ashton, for instance, believes the party needs to go further left of the Liberals. But that would surely marginalize the New Democrats even more.

Let's face it, whoever wins this race is looking at a long slog in Opposition. (Bold prediction, I know). But then, so are the Conservatives. They usually need a split on the centre-left of the political spectrum in order to win power and it doesn't look as if that is going to materialize for some time. Mr. Trudeau will likely have the bulk of the progressive vote locked down for some time yet, unless hubris claims him.

Meantime, the NDP leadership race could still surprise us yet. Although my faith in that prospect diminishes by the day.

Ontario NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh has joined the race to become the leader of the federal New Democrats. Singh says he is driven by a desire to create a more 'inclusive Canada.'

The Canadian Press