The ONW Salon:
The NDP's Charlie Angus has launched a website asking readers whether he should run for the NDP leadership, and Kevin O'Leary has jumped into the CPC leadership race. What are their chances, given the current climates in their parties? What should be their top issues and what are their strengths and drawbacks? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin discuss.
The leadership races of both the NDP and the Conservative parties are fascinating, for a number of reasons.
Let's start with the NDP. In every election, there are winners and losers. While many might think that Justin Trudeau's huge victory a little over a year ago was more devastating to the Conservatives on the grounds that they were the defeated incumbent government, it appears the carnage was greater in the NDP.
First, they were leading in the polls going into the election. Canadians wanted change, and the NDP thought, and may observers thought, that the NDP were poised to win the battle for change. Trudeau's win not only catapulted him and his team into government for four years, it appears to have smashed the NDP and the consensus within that party on what kind of a party they want to be, what they stand for and who should lead that effort. They promptly dumped their leader Tom Mulcair, and then no one stepped forward to replace him.
Most of the expected successors declined the opportunity to challenge Trudeau for the mantle of who will speak for progressives in this country. This was devastating to the NDP, and the wounds are still there.
That said, the emergence of Charlie Angus as a potential candidate is the first sign of life, and maybe, of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. He is smart, earnest and committed. He represents a change from Mulcair's Thatcherian pragmatism. And for those who don't know, he is a helluva musician. Angus played in the well-named alt-country band The Grievous Angels, a fine example of Canadian talent and creativity.
But they will need more than Charlie's candidacy to spark the debate that they need to have about whither the NDP in the current context - a context that sees a still popular Prime Minister whose inclinations and beliefs are progressive yet pragmatic. That sounds a lot like the philosophy of many New Democrats who have governed provincially, including icons like Gary Doer and Roy Romanow, and the current Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley.
It will be a fascinating debate to watch. New Democrats have to hope that a debate happens, that Charlie Angus has lots of company with different ideas. Only then will they have the opportunity to renew themselves and chart an alternative vision to the Liberals.
To Richard's point, I am not sure which is worse - an incumbent governing party losing an election; or a third place party going into an election as a frontrunner for most of the election and then not only losing, but also coming in last. I would say both scenarios suck, but the NDP did take the loss harder. The Conservatives maintained Official Opposition status and close to 100 seats.
The NDP suffered a brutal loss and their leader Tom Mulcair suffered an even more brutal leadership defeat at the hands of his own party not that long after the election. No wonder the NDP are having a difficult time with candidates to run for the top job. As Richard so ably points out above, there is a significant divide in the NDP that hasn't been there for many years - not to this level anyway.
That is unlike the Conservatives, which now have, I think, 14 candidates vying for the top job. The most recent entry is none other than Kevin O’Leary. I will disclose now that at the writing of this, I am uncommitted to any leadership candidate – I was with Tony Clement until he left the race in October and I have not committed to any leader. I know and have met most of the candidates – all have strong positives and very few negatives.
The issue with the Conservatives is less about internal divisions as they are minimal given that they had a strong performance despite the loss and the Conservatives are enjoying a very capable Interim Leader in Rona Ambrose. The issue will be of style and whether the new leader will continue with Harper policies or take the party down a different route.
The NDP have more profound challenges with the PM taking a chunk of their left flank, so it is good to see some interest in the leadership, especially with Charlie Angus. He has been around, knows the ins and outs of the NDP and has some spark to his personality.
There is, in fact, a very real NDP leadership campaign going on. There are five candidates – Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Jagmeet Singh, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian. But it’s all subterranean because of in-built disincentives to announcing. As soon as any candidate officially declares they need to step down from their critic role and start spending money. The federal NDP has recently decided to flush out the candidates by calling a leadership debate March 12 in Ottawa.
Charlie Angus has released a campaign website asking people to encourage him to run. Charlie offers a great deal to the party. He is liked for his combination of compassion and toughness. There’s no doubt about why he got into politics – and it’s not ego gratification. As a musician, he has a great backstory.
Charlie has strong connections outside his home base of Timmins, especially in Toronto, and is well respected for his work with First Nations in his community. His efforts to try to keep the Trudeau Liberals to their promises to indigenous Canadians has been exemplary. His Commons sound bites are terrific, and he would do well as an opposition leader.
However, he has a big perceived weakness – lack of French language skill. His challenge will be to show significant Quebec support. Winning the early support of Romeo Saganash could help. Without Quebec support, it will be hard for Charlie to articulate his political vision and his path to power.
A second candidate I feel is very strong is Guy Caron. Guy has an MA in economics and is Finance Critic, from Rimouski. His English is fluent, but accented. He has national connections through his work with the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union and the Council of Canadians. Guy will be able to talk about jobs and an economy that supports working class and middle class voters.
But Guy has the flip side problem of Charlie – he will have to show some western support to say he can provide a path to power for the NDP. Guy is good as an opposition politician, highlighting the mirage of the “middle class” tax cut, raising concerns about the private infrastructure bank, increasing awareness of the problems caused by tax havens and what he sees as Canada Revenue Agency’s go-soft approach on the wealthy.
Both Charlie and Guy can toggle between left populism and social democracy, between identity and class. There’s a lot there for New Democrats to consider.
At this time, in my opinion, Jagmeet, Niki and Peter are in a second tier – but we are very early days.
To paraphrase Monty Python: and now for something completely different: the Conservatives! I agree with John - while the defeat was difficult for Stephen Harper and the governing party, they have decent representation in the House and about eight thousand candidates for leader.
So their problem isn't too few candidates - it is the candidates they have. Some are busy running away from the less popular parts of the Harper legacy and discussing a broader tent party - Michael Chong has been impressive in this regard.
But the attention of a good portion of the media and the Conservative party membership has been captured by the Trump "mini-me" approaches of Kellie Leitch and now Kevin O'Leary.
Leitch's campaign has been pathetic in some ways - she started out with a teary apology for her role in one of the more disgraceful tactics of the Harper government - the trumped up release of the ludicrous "barbaric cultural practices hotline" and the race-baiting niqab ban. She faltered in the early days and then pivoted back to her old ways, parroting Donald Trump with her values test. The problem is that it appears to have worked - she is now regarded as a frontrunner - some of the membership apparently likes this stuff.
O'Leary's entry into the race threatens to turn this further into farce. He is a bad joke. But a joke with profile and boastful ways. It worked south of the border...
Lost in all of this hoopla are the more serious candidates who might be able to mount a credible challenge. These include Lisa Raitt and Erin O'Toole. They need the exposure and profile boost a contested leadership will give them. But the oxygen in the room appears to be all taken up by the little Trumpers Leitch and now O'Leary. A credible, contested battle of ideas is what the Conservatives need. Not a contest of who can out-Trump the other.
I remember being in Richard's very enviable position during post-election leadership battles. I would far rather be watching than participating, since party leadership battles are often contentious and one is usually conflicted amongst whom to support based on friendships, loyalties and capabilities.
I will leave the NDP leadership analysis to my good NDP friend, Tom, who has provided a strong perspective on the NDP candidates. Suffice it to say that who they pick next will be critical to their positioning leading up to the next election and how they will play in Quebec especially.
As for the Conservatives, there is no doubt that with Kevin’s entry into the race it will up everyone’s game because he is coming in hot and has nothing to lose. Also, the media will now be watching the race more than before. I was watching the Sunday talk shows and all of them mentioned Kevin’s entry more than all the other candidates combined – and that was just one day!
Kevin may have money, but more important than that in this leadership race is that he has name recognition. In a race where most Canadians – and some party members - can’t name the candidates, he brings attention and flare. Whether that amounts to actual members signing up in ridings across Canada and then going out to vote for him is yet to be seen.
Unlike the U.S. primary system, which often gets equated with the Conservative system of leadership, here the ridings are weighted at 100 points, so a riding with 10,000 members is as strong and important as a riding with 500. That means national appeal is critical to winning.
The other contenders who have managed thus far to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack are Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch and Michael Chong. All are strong contenders for the top job although I would say it will be difficult for Michael to get broad party support of existing members given his history within the party. But he can appeal to Canadians who aren't members as his only chance.
Kellie and Max have defined themselves and have party appeal for very different reasons - they will continue to out-perform. I am interested to see how Lisa Raitt and Erin O'Toole define themselves over the next few months as both are incredibly talented and well liked, but are thus far finding it hard to get the attention they need and deserve.
Lots of time left with two more debates before the May 27 vote and with O'Leary now in the race, the time to shine and perform given the media attention is now.
A few thoughts about Jagmeet, Niki and Peter.
Jagmeet is a very engaging person. He has been working to get himself known across the country for well over a year now, having been a guest speaker at various provincial conventions. His base will be Toronto and he will have to show he has national strength. If he can, he might take off.
Peter is perfectly bilingual and a child of the party, having served as the President of the Quebec Council and in the federal office. He has long networks. I have known Peter since the early 1990s. Peter needs a clear issue to bolt his campaign to.
Nike has ready-name issues - youth unemployment, precarious work and student debt. She will have early support in Manitoba and among the many young activists she has met through her work.
The party, I think, has developed a good election process -- kudos to national President Marit Stiles!
There will be a debate in Ottawa on March 12, another in Montreal on March 26. The last day to register is July 3. It is a one-member-one vote system - people can join until Aug 17. First round voting (on-line and by mail) opens September 18 and closes Oct 1. From there, a further ballot will be counted every Sunday until there is a winner.
I think this is a good process because, unlike a ranked ballot, a voter can consider the dynamics of the race when placing their vote. I believe it will also create some drama and news.
Frankly, I am not as glum about the NDP's prospects as Richard or John - they seem really down! What I see is a place for the NDP to create both an economic plan for working and middle class people and a social justice and environmental plan. I don't expect to see a ton of issue differences - mostly it will be about leadership attributes. Despite what others say, New Democrats are pretty clear about where they stand. And on many of these issues - pharmacare, electoral reform, etc. - Canadians are in the same place.
What the NDP needs is a leader who can inspire and project those positions. Richard and John are glum today - but they will perk up! Just keep watching.
Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance. He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.