DOWN TO THE WIRE

My bet is on Thomas Mulcair to win the NDP leadership race – in a squeaker.  And it could be the dedicated support of the Quebec NDP membership that helps take him over the top.

Here’s why:

Quebec currently ranks third, behind Ontario and B.C., in the number of eligible party votes.  But it arguably has the most concentrated block of support for a single candidate – Mulcair. Predictions vary, but he could win as much as 85% of the Quebec vote.

No other candidate can boast such numbers in their home province.  Nathan Cullen comes close with a solid base in B.C., but Martin Singh, Peggy Nash, Brian Topp and Mulcair also have moderate to strong pools of support there.

In Ontario, the vote is even more splintered between candidates. Ottawa’s Paul Dewar and Torontonian Peggy Nash will duke it out with Brian Topp for the lion’s share of the vote. But you can count on both Cullen and Mulcair to make strong inroads in Ontario, further diluting the final vote there.

As always, the members who actually cast a vote will decide the outcome of the race.  It’s rare in elections to have more than 50% of eligible participants exercise their right to vote. But since 11,000 new members joined up in Quebec during the leadership race (the biggest % increase by far of all the provinces), it’s likely that the Quebec voter turnout will be significantly higher than the national average. In a tight race, this could be the crucial boost Mulcair needs to inch up his first ballot vote.

The first ballot vote is most important for Mulcair. The “anyone but Mulcair” sentiment fostered by personal attacks thrown at him in the later stages of the race could affect the number of second and third choice ballots he can get in later voting rounds.

Only the final vote will tell us if the attacks against Mulcair have been successful.  But judging by the tidal wave of national media condemning the attacks and crowning him “the candidate to beat,” Mulcair has emerged stronger than his opponents would like.

Mulcair’s “High Road” campaign of respecting all candidates and refusing to answer to any of the attacks has scored points with a party that has never been comfortable with negative-style campaigning.

If one of the objectives of Ed Broadbent’s damning attack against Mulcair last week was to diminish the candidate’s importance in Quebec, he has largely failed. According to Chantal Hébert, political commentator for The Toronto Star, “Not a single independent observer [in Quebec] buys Broadbent’s analysis that Mulcair was the beneficiary of a 50-years-in-the-making stroke of central command genius rather than a major protagonist of the NDP’s surge in the province.”

She goes on to further state, “Repeating over and over again that Mulcair is not the prime NDP figure in Quebec and a central piece of its electoral future will not make it true.”

Advance online voting for the NDP leadership race closes at 11:00 am EDT on Friday, March 23.


ATTACK!

With the NDP leadership convention only a few weeks away and candidates scrambling to bolster their support, things have gotten downright nasty.

Led by personal attack sites like Know the Real Mulcair, a ton of disinformation is being flung around about presumed frontrunner, Thomas Mulcair.  From Twitter to Facebook and other online media, it’s enough to make your head spin, and almost impossible to discern the garbage from the legit criticisms.  In order to make the right choice for NDP Leader, it was crucial that I get a chance to look Mulcair square in the eye and size him up.

Well… the other night I had the opportunity to meet the REAL Thomas Mulcair, face to face.

He stood in the middle of a packed bar in downtown Toronto and reminded us about the NDP’s successful targeting of Quebec’s youth vote in the last election. He then spoke about Toronto’s multicultural population — and how the NDP will need to target Canada’s burgeoning ethnic vote to win in 2015.

The partisan crowd gave his speech a loud round of applause, and I thought he was going to get off easy.

I was wrong.  In the lively question period that followed, he was hit with a barrage of serious questions – more to the jugular than I’d ever seen during the formal debates.

At the back of the room a woman yelled out, “I don’t mean any disrespect, but really, how good are you at working with others?” An honest question, considering that Mulcair has often been criticized for being too strong-willed and not enough of a consensus-builder.

Mulcair countered that of all the leadership candidates, he has the support of the largest number of NDP caucus members.  Since they’re supporting him for leader, it proves that they’re prepared to work with him. He reflected on his track record: he’s been elected 6 times.  Mulcair stated that it was only by working closely with his campaign team that he was able to win in a riding like Outremont, where the NDP had previously polled only 6% of the vote. He noted with pride that many of his key campaign team members were still working for him.

A silver-haired women standing up front asked what he would do if he were Prime Minister and Israel attacked Iran.  Mulcair said he was fervently opposed to an Israeli attack and believed that seeking a peaceful solution was the only way to resolve the tensions in the Middle East.

In response to questions about his plans to “modernize the party”, Mulcair discussed the importance of continuing Layton’s strategy of attracting more Canadians to the NDP by showing them that the party could muster the organization needed to form the next government. He also made some good points about the need to reform the Senate and make it an elected body.

But it was Mulcair’s candid response to the benign question, “Do you like any of the other candidates’ ideas and would you use any of them?” that most earned my respect.

At a time when candidates seem to be either attacking one another’s policies or suddenly embracing them in order to win more votes, Mulcair talked about the need to “keep to the high road”.  He spoke of respecting the other candidates, and how some of their ideas are worthwhile. But his years of experience have taught him that during a campaign it’s “a slippery slope” if you start straying from your own vision.

The other candidates’ spinmeisters would probably call that arrogance.  Not me.  I see it as confidence.

I met the real Mulcair – and he surpassed my expectations.


DEMOCRACY, PART DEUX

In a recent post [Democracy, Anyone?], I waxed poetic about the democratic virtues of OMOV, the one-member-one-vote system the NDP embraced for their upcoming leadership election. Was I wrong?

Up until the February 18 cut-off date, for only $25 anyone over the age of 18 was able join the NDP and secure a vote in next month’s leadership election.  By keeping the requirements so minimal, the NDP hoped to spur a massive membership drive.  But in doing so, have they put their democratic principles at risk?

In India, the world’s largest democracy, it’s accepted as fact that vote-buying exists. Here in Canada, I haven’t seen evidence of vote-buying, but with the recent NDP membership drive I have seen some questionable tactics.

The BC Green Liberal Caucus’s cross-partisan support of NDP candidate Nathan Cullen is an interesting case study. By encouraging their members to buy a membership in a party with which they are not affiliated, are they entering questionable moral territory?  They support Cullen’s environmental views, but you can’t rule out the fact they are also enamored of his cozying up to the Liberal party.  It would be interesting to see how many of the new NDP members are also paying members of the Liberal Party.

There’s nothing illegal about their actions.  What’s illegal would be taking a laptop into a bar and handing over $100 to each person that joined the NDP and voted for a specific candidate. Farfetched? Maybe, but it does highlight my point that when membership is so cheap and there’s zero scrutiny, what prevents some form of vote-buying from taking place?  With no rules concerning joint affiliations, what’s to stop the other parties from encouraging their members to join the NDP en masse and vote for the leadership candidate least likely to give them trouble in the next federal election?

Another democratic beef I have with the NDP leadership drive is the party’s failure to ensure that the final membership stats will be an accurate reflection of where the party’s main voter strength lies. This could have dire consequences.

Of the 101 federal seats held by the NDP, 59 are from Quebec. Yet before the current leadership race began, there were only 1,695 NDP members in that province.  In B.C., where they hold only 12 federal seats, there were a disproportionate 30,000 members. Even in Saskatchewan – with zero federal NDP seats – they had almost 8,000 members.

At the midpoint of the leadership race, the party reported a remarkable surge in Quebec membership, to 5,558 members. But when we get to see the final tallies this week, it’s highly unlikely that Quebec will have surpassed 10,000 members, or roughly 10% of the total membership.

Building up party membership takes time.  It’s foolhardy to think that what took years to accomplish in English Canada can happen in a few months in Quebec, where up until a year ago the NDP had almost zero presence.

The party could have ensured more proportionate regional membership representation by imposing provincial quotas. This tactic would surely have brought heaps of criticism from party members unhappy that Thomas Mulcair, who has a large part of his support in Quebec, would benefit the most of all the candidates.

A moot point now.  On March 24, when the party faithful meet in Toronto (why not Montreal?) to pick a leader, there’s a possibility that the winner won’t resonate with the strong block of support in Quebec. This could have a massive impact on whether they decide to back the NDP again in the next federal election.


THE CULL

With two new opposing polls out, and fresh mud being slung around, it’s time to cull the NDP leadership herd and focus on the real contenders.

Here are my picks for the cull, in no particular order. The five candidates I’ve selected all have good qualities, but they’re slowing the herd down.

Martin Singh. He seems pleasant and brings a refreshing business viewpoint to the table, but his policies aren’t defined enough and I can’t see him drawing a large crowd.

Paul Dewar.  People are getting sick of hearing about the importance of speaking French, but come on:  we’re picking a national leader.  We wouldn’t consider a unilingual francophone for the job.  Dewar has a voter base in English-speaking Canada, but will never make enough gains in Quebec for me to see him as a true national leader.

Nathan Cullen. I feel his charm. I love his energy. He’s conquered Twitter and Facebook and has a grin a mile long, but I strongly disagree with his joint NDP/Liberal nomination gambit. It smells too much like a campaign tactic to shock the party and boost his standing in the polls. I stand by my view that the NDP does not need the Liberal Party to win the next election.

Niki Ashton. I first became aware of her through YouTube videos from the Legislature. She’s already a veteran MP, and it shows.  When she takes on the Conservatives, her diction is strong and her viewpoints are well defined.  She’s gutsy on the campaign trail too, but – and this is a significant but – sometimes she comes off as over-rehearsed and stiff. I miss the off-the-cuff spontaneity that I see in my top two picks, that ability to wing it when the situation suddenly does a complete 180.  In my opinion, this crucial skill separates the followers from the true leaders.

Brian Topp. He has made progress on the image front. (I can gladly say that my past comparison to Eeyore doesn’t apply anymore.) I like some of his policies. He’s a smart man with strong roots in the party – and that counts for something.  But I don’t think the general electorate is going to go for him.  He lacks the gravitas or charisma to sway people, to get them excited.  And without those crucial traits, he’ll never do what Jack did so well: gain voters’ trust. Without that, forget it – the deal’s off.

Okay. Let’s meet the two main contenders: Peggy Nash and Thomas Mulcair.

Of the seven candidates, only these two have shown the full range of leadership qualities needed to be elected Canada’s next Prime Minister.

Peggy Nash has surprised me the most in this long campaign. With every debate and passionate speech she has grown more comfortable with her potential role as the party leader. Her knowledge of international policy has given her an almost stately aura. When I hear Nash speak, I can easily imagine her going head-to-head with other world leaders.

Thomas Mulcair is a force of nature – just watch his videos from the Legislature. Here is a man who can outwit and outmuscle the Conservatives on any given day. During this campaign he has shown patience, poise and a lightning-quick ability to think on his feet and win over the crowd.

Nash and Mulcair’s economic and social policies differ, representing the two sides of an ideological chasm that has been steadily growing within the party.

Mulcair wants to nudge the NDP to the middle and soften some of its stronger messages, like toning down the party’s hardline stance on income tax increases for higher-bracket Canadians. His cap-and-trade climate plan has been echoed by past Liberal leaders.

Nash, a former negotiator for the Canadian Auto Workers, has a strong background in social movements. She played a role in the anti-free trade movement in the 1980s and has always been identified with more staunch NDP policies.

That said, nothing is wrought in stone. In the Quebec debate, I was surprised to hear Nash seemingly waver in her usual support for universal healthcare when she said it’s “a decision of Quebec’s” if they want to begin charging user fees.

Maybe she too is seeking to broaden her voter base.


MERGER? FEH.

NDP leadership hopeful Nathan Cullen reminds me of an advertising director I once worked for. Slick, charming and completely self-assured, this guy had the ability to convince every rube in the room that no matter how crazy his pitch was, he could turn it into gold.

Apparently Cullen has a bit of the ‘Midas’ touch too. His joint NDP/Liberal nomination scheme is ridiculous, but he’s successfully tapping into the angst of some NDP members.  They’re scared that without help from the Liberals, the NDP won’t secure enough votes to beat Harper in the next federal election.

Let’s set the record straight. Joint party nomination means:  if the NDP have an electoral riding where their chances of winning are low, they will not run a candidate. They will instead ask their supporters to vote Liberal.

If Jack had used this half-witted strategy during the last federal election, he would have run only a handful of candidates in Quebec.  The NDP would never have won 58 seats in that province, and would not have become the official Opposition – and that much closer to holding power.

On Twitter, Cullen’s followers like his pledge that “in three years I want to make sure we beat Stephen Harper.” And if it means snuggling up to the Liberals, they seem to be okay with that.

What does all this snuggling-up really mean? You can’t suggest joint party nominations and not imagine the final endgame. Make no bones about it, what Cullen is really talking about is an NDP/Liberal merger.

Is this what NDP members want?  The other leadership candidates have given a strong thumbs-down to closer ties with the Liberals. They have their own strategies for winning the next federal election.

Current frontrunner Thomas Mulcair, a former Liberal, is an admitted centrist.  But his approach is,  “We don’t move the party to the centre [i.e. the Liberals], we move the centre towards us.”  His promise to not automatically increase income tax is designed to woo more middle-of-the-road voters to the NDP – and is in stark contrast to Brian Topp’s policy of favoring a tax increase for the rich.

Peggy Nash, who has steadily improved in each debate and is now in second place, favours a Topp-like approach that preserves traditional, lefty NDP core policies.

Cullen’s Liberal smoochfest is an unnecessary step for the NDP. All this merger mumbo-jumbo only kicked in after Jack died. Why? Because he would have laughed at it. He would have pointed out that the Liberals now hold only 34 federal seats – and that the NDP, with their Quebec landslide and Opposition status, don’t need the Grits to build support across the country.

You do have to give Nathan Cullen some credit.  He started off near the back of the pack but has used his shrewd, snake charmer-like skills to wake up a sleepy membership and advance his standing.

That said, what the party needs is a strong leader who can remain loyal to NDP ideals and still appeal to the broader electorate.


IT’S STILL QUEBEC, STUPID

While trolling the web, I came across a gem from the 2011 federal election campaign: Jack at the Olympia Theatre in Montreal.

At first glance, I thought I was viewing a victory celebration. When Jack arrives on stage, it’s truly a Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium moment. The crowd goes wild; clapping, cheering, waving placards – not letting him speak. When he finally does, in his fluent, colloquial French, he whips the crowd into a further frenzy.

We all know what happened on May 2, 2011: the NDP made electoral history by winning an unprecedented 59 seats in Quebec, vaulting the party into Official Opposition status. In the process, they confused the hell out of many anglos living outside of Quebec.

How did Jack win? It’s all there in his Olympia Theatre speech.

He grabs the audience with his now-legendary, “Some people say I’m too nice for politics… I can’t promise I’ll stop being nice, but you know me and you know that I’ll fight and work relentlessly for the priorities that you hold dear.”

Simple? Yes. And fucking brilliant. Quebeckers saw Jack as one of them. Born and raised there, fluent in French – people believed him. And they TRUSTED him. Do you think they trust Harper?

Next, he dove into the issues:  the need to defend the interests of Quebecois families and seniors, invest in clean energy, end subsidies to big polluters, and get Canada out of Afghanistan.  He spoke about hope, and about ridding politics of negativity and corruption.

The English press wrote endless drivel, writing off the Quebec NDP win as, “They voted for Jack” and “NDP who?”  But just watch the Olympia crowd go wild over his platform. These are hardcore NDP policies and they resonate in Quebec. They love the man, but they also agree wholeheartedly with what he’s saying.

Now comes the corker.  Jack pledges to fight “to give a progressive voice to Quebeckers in Ottawa, at the heart of the Cabinet. It’s possible for Quebec to be strongly represented in Ottawa.  Not in the opposition, but as the government…  You deserve a change.  And for that, we have to do more than block the Conservatives – we have to replace them!”

The crowd went nuts. This rallying cry, repeated by Jack throughout the 2011 election campaign, was dismissed in the English press as “delusional”. But in Quebec it was taken seriously by voters frustrated with the Bloc’s inability to gain votes – and a voice – outside of the province.

With support across the entire country, Jack gave Quebec a voice and a federal party to boot – something the Bloc could never do.

There are some outside of Quebec (and even within the NDP) who are made queasy by the idea of wooing sovereigntists. Get over it – Jack did.  Early on, he realized that Quebeckers, sovereigntist or not, want their concerns heard. And what better party than the NDP to do it?

Judging by what I saw in the last NDP leadership debate, the candidates are finally focusing on the importance of Quebec, but I wonder if they all understand the kind of leader we need to hold Quebec and take the rest of the country.

Interesting footnote: introducing Jack that night at the Olympia Theatre was Thomas Mulcair, at the time Quebec’s only NDP MP.  Check out how much love he gets:


DEMOCRACY, ANYONE?

The one-member-one-vote system (OMOV) the NDP will use to select its next leader in March is poised to kick the party in the ass – in a good way.

Prior to 2003, the party relied on the old convention model:  selected delegates from across the country came together and voted, and as a special bonbon, 30-40% of the total vote was reserved for affiliated unions. Hardly a true democratic process.

In the 2003 NDP leadership race, following the lead of the Parti Québécois, the NDP switched to OMOV for the first time, but still gave affiliated unions 25% of the vote. Better, but not quite there yet. Jack won that year’s leadership race by a decisive margin, using the democratic OMOV to his advantage; he pulled votes from a large cross-section of the party membership.

Last fall, Thomas Mulcair called for the abolition of special-privilege voting for unions in the upcoming leadership vote.  He argued that for the NDP to grow and become the next party to govern Canada, it would need to reach beyond its traditional labour base.

It’s fair to point out that there are no Quebec labour unions (that I know of) presently affiliated with the NDP. Mulcair’s leadership run would not benefit from a protected union vote. On the other hand, that of rival Brian Topp – a union leader – would. He hotly contested Mulcair’s stance, arguing that the labour movement is a “foundational partner” of the NDP and that unions are part of the NDP’s DNA.

On September 8, the NDP Federal Council voted to remove special-privilege voting for unions. Each NDP member, regardless of any affiliations, would get one vote only.

This little-publicized decision could have earthquake-sized implications in a party that for years was identified as a union-made party. I don’t buy Brian Topp’s assertion that taking the reserved vote away from unions excludes the labour movement from the party. I believe in unions – show me an NDPer who does not – but I do think the democratic OMOV is the fairer way to pick a new leader.

The race is on. February 18 is the cutoff for new member registration. The candidate who draws the most new members is going to have the best crack at winning the crown.