OTTAWA — There were no knockout punches during the NDP’s first leadership debate Sunday in Ottawa, but those watching were left with a better impression of who could sell the party’s message.
To the 725 people in the room, the nine NDP candidates on stage resembled each other on policy, agreeing on the need to create a society where no one was left behind, the importance of investing in a green economy, in Aboriginal communities and in a strong national housing strategy.
But it was the way they sold their message that left a mark.
With 59 MPs from Quebec, Robert Chisholm, a former leader of the NDP in Nova Scotia, acknowledged French was key, but demonstrated during the hour-long French debate that he cannot speak the language of Molière.
He used simultaneous translation to get by and at one point, when he tried to interject in French, it was objectively hard to understand what he was saying.
“I think we know that I don’t speak French but I am working very hard at it,” the MP later told reporters, noting that he is studying almost daily with a tutor.
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Paul Dewar, the NDP MP from Ottawa Centre, also demonstrated a weak ability in French.
The afternoon’s biggest surprise may have been newcomer Martin Singh. The bilingual businessman and pharmacist from Nova Scotia impressed some in the audience with his ease on stage. He spoke clearly, carefully and directly to the camera, but his one track message — focusing on the needs of small business — turned some people off.
Quebec MP Romeo Saganash appeared stressed and nervous during the English part of the debate, although in French he was much more comfortable. He later told reporters he was suffering from bronchitis.
The two perceived front-runners when the debate began, long-time party operator Brian Topp and Quebec lieutenant Thomas Mulcair, avoided taking direct shots at one another. In fact, Topp seemed more preoccupied with Dewar than Mulcair when he was given a chance. Both avoided any fumbles. Topp was more combative and Mulcair seemed more level-headed but neither outshone the other contestants.
After the two-hour debates, the most charismatic candidate appeared to be Nathan Cullen. He joked at one point that he was in “violent agreement” with the other candidates, after each couldn't agree more with the other. In short, Cullen demonstrated, in French and in English, that he belonged in the front-runners’ group.
The most interesting moment of the day happened mid-way through the French debate, when the candidates were asked who they supported as their second choice.
Cullen said he believed it may be time for a female prime minister and picked Toronto MP Peggy Nash. Nash said she also though a female prime minister was the right idea and chose Niki Ashton.
The 29-year-old Ashton refused to single anyone out, such as the other candidates that came after her, but she noted that all the hopefuls were “super!”
Even for some NDP stalwarts, it was not the most electrifying debate. NDP MP Bruce Hyer, who was sitting right behind the candidates’ podiums, had an attack of the heavy eyelids during the French debate.
There were a lot of platitudes. Ashton kept repeating her desire for a “new politics,” one that was more inclusive. Others talked about where they would invest, but none, other than Topp, really spoke about any tough choices that would have to be made in order to spend in all the areas addressed.
“Of course, we’ll put more meat on the bones, as they say, as the race goes on,” Cullen told reporters after the debate.
It shouldn’t be a surprise the candidates agree with one another, most contestants suggested. After all, they noted, they were all New Democrats and part of late leader Jack Layton’s team.
“It’s not a bad thing that the party is united and that we are all like-minded,” Topp said.
“Canadians don’t mind that candidates agree on things. What we have to show is that we’re a party that is going to be on the move and be able to go to places and bring our message to places where we haven’t been able to do it before,” Dewar noted.
Others candidates, however, suggested differences and cleavages would become more pronounced in the months to come.
“It’s a first debate, it’s early in the campaign, we are going to differentiate ourselves more and more as the campaign moves ahead,” Nash predicted.
The NDP’s second of six debates is scheduled for January. The party will select its new leader during a convention in Toronto on March 24.