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NDP Leadership Hopefuls Get Through 1st Debate

The nine leadership candidates vying for the top job of the New Democratic Party did their best Sunday to show the members of their party and Canadians at large how they would manage the economy if elected NDP leader, in the first of six televised debates.

The debate began with opening statements outlining their overall message and priorities. Robert Chisholm's opening line invoked a message Jack Layton first delivered when the writ was dropped last March 26: "Ottawa is broken and it's getting worse."

Thomas Mulcair was the only candidate to begin his opening remarks in French.

Niki Ashton asked for support in bringing "new politics to Ottawa."

After the opening statements, came a round of questions and the opportunity to debate in groups of three.

While most of the candidates played nice, there was one moment in the first hour of the debate that sparked some disagreement.

Caelin Campbell, a university student in Victoria, asked, "As prime minister what would be the first change you would make to address the environmental concerns currently facing our country?"

With that, Paul Dewar said he would propose "an east to west grid for sustainable energy."

But Dewar's proposal did not go unchallenged for long.

In fact, as soon as the group of three was allowed to debate, it was this particular exchange between Paul Dewar and Brian Topp that sparked the most debate.

Topp asked Dewar how he planned to fund this east to west grid.

Dewar deflected the question by saying, "Actually, I'm going to focus on the environment and climate change."

But Topp persisted, "How do you plan to pay for it?"

An annoyed Dewar answered, "If I may... where the money will come from is by taking the corporate tax cuts... and start investing in infrastructure in this country."

Thomas Mulcair jumped in, but it didn't take long for Topp to press Dewar again: "If at the end of the day what you are proposing to do with all of the plans is putting them on the public debt..."

Dewar replied, "I thought we were talking about the environment?"

Topp pressed on, "If your plan is to put it all on the public debt, then the risk that we run is that we won't get elected."

With somwehat of a surprised look of on his face, Dewar asked Topp, "Who is saying that?"

The first debate focused on the economy.

"It's the most important issue for voters, and it's also the most significant question that some voters would have about the NDP," said Harris-Decima pollster Bruce Anderson.

While the NDP's position on subjects like health and the environment are traditionally well known, the next leader of the NDP will have to show he or she "can manage the economy, especially in times of economic turmoil," said NDP interim deputy national director Sally Housser

The the second hour of the debate was in French and moderated by journalist Joel-Denis Bellavance.

This was the first of six NDP leadership debates before a new leader is chosen on March 24, but it was also to be the only bilingual one.

Bilingualism has become an important issue for the NDP since the May 2 election when Quebec helped sweep it to Official Opposition. More than half of the NDP's seats now come from the province.

More debates are scheduled over the coming weeks in Halifax, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver.

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