11/28/2011 12:46 EST | Updated 01/28/2012 05:12 EST

NDP Leadership Race Is a Campaign of Nobodies


It was Pierre Trudeau who famously said that MPs were nobodies once they were 50 yards from the Hill. That reference could certainly apply to the present day NDP leadership campaign. It's a bit of a con game (i.e., a campaign of nobodies).

While the candidates are a decent bunch of individuals and hard-working constituency MPs, can Canadians envision all but a couple of them as the next prime minister of Canada? I say that because in the end, that is what this leadership race is all about. Whoever wins will be the leader of the Official Opposition and potentially if everything falls into place for them, our next prime minister.

It might seem like a pretty harsh judgment, but federal politics is the big league in Canada. It is a brutal battleground where only the toughest and best survive. Being a nice person and a hard-working MP doesn't mean that you are prime ministerial material or even party leadership material. That has been proven time and again and if you look back over the last 10 to 15 years in Canadian political life you can count quite a few leaders (from all parties) who didn't survive.

Of course, politics is as much about ego as it is experience and the low financial commitment required to enter the NDP leadership race has allowed those with the ego, if not the experience or ability, to run for the NDP leadership.

Thomas Mulcair and Robert Chisholm at least have some senior-level provincial political experience and they are well known in their respective provinces. A couple of others might be well known inside the Queensway and Ottawa bubble, but they are hardly household names. Brian Topp is well known to the rank and file in the NDP party, but again largely unknown to the public at large and he is someone who has never been elected at any level. It remains to be seen if the backroom boy can take the heat of a leadership race that is still in its infancy and which has yet to turn ugly.

As for the rest ... other than the candidates themselves, how many Canadians can envision Prime Minister Paul Dewar or Prime Minister Niki Ashton? How many can see Martin Singh, Peggy Nash, Romeo Saganash or Nathan Cullen as our prime minister? Could they stand toe to toe with Stephen Harper and the Conservative brass knuckle style of politics?

The Official Opposition is the government in waiting. The MPs you see in the House are potential cabinet ministers. Can you see 30 to 40 of the present NDP MPs sitting in cabinet being led by one of the present leadership candidates? If you can't, then the NDP has a problem that the present campaign must address; something it has so far failed to do.

Having spent some 30 years in politics, I have seen and participated in my share of leadership contests. I know that some candidates are putting their names forward because they want to be better positioned for when the leadership race after this one opens up. There is also a chance that the two main contenders, Topp and Mulcair, will battle to a draw and the party will then turn to a third choice. But if that should happen, it won't mean that they will be any more competent to govern, but it will mean a relatively unknown MP will be suddenly thrust into the spotlight of prime time coverage. That option doesn't always work, remember "Joe Who"?

The party still has plenty of time to raise the candidates' profiles and improve their name recognition with Canadian voters, but with a limited number of leadership debates, that will be difficult task. Until then, it will be up to the candidates themselves to raise their profiles as they criss-cross the country to meet party members (hopefully not on their MPs travel points). Either way they have a difficult task to convince Canadians that they should be the next prime minister.

For now, once these MPs leave the spotlight of the daily Question Period and once outside of their ridings, they remain largely unknowns, an example of the nobodies Trudeau referred to.