4 min

Signs of life in the second NDP debate

There may have been more instances of
“violent agreement” with the second official NDP leadership debate, held in
Halifax this afternoon, but this particular session saw a few minutes of actual
debate take place – but not until about halfway through the proceedings.

The topic at hand was “Giving families a
break.” Because apparently, singletons don’t deserve one. And in the opening
statements, most participants stuck to the issue, with various shout-outs to local
New Democrats, or Peter MacKay jokes, or references to how Harper’s vision of
family was one akin to Leave It to Beaver,
whereas Peggy Nash was more about Modern
(it was pointed out over Twitter that the women don’t work
on that show either). Also, Singh reiterated “pharmacare,” Niki Ashton
reiterated New Politics™, and Nathan Cullen ignored the topic and talked about
pipelines to the West Coast.

Dan Leger, of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, was a pretty solid moderator and was full
of good humour and reminders about sticking on topic – not that the candidates
necessarily paid attention to those suggestions. This was certainly obvious
when it came to the first round of questions, in which candidates had to give
clear answers on which programs they would not cut and which ones they would,
given this age of fiscal austerity. And while the candidates started out by
sticking to the topic, they strayed by the end: Topp talked about
reversing income tax cuts to the “one percent,” Ashton sort of but not really said she wants to cut the military, Saganash talked about the money spent
fighting groups like First Nations getting rights, and Dewar suggested that
consultants could be cut. But then it all slid away – Singh started talking
about increasing employment, Mulcair about not using the oil sands as a dumping
ground and cap-and-trade, Cullen about ending corporate subsidies to oil sands
companies, and Nash on targeting tax havens – again, not actually cuts.

From here came two “group debates” of four
candidates each on the topic at hand, with generous references to the last
electoral platform (which Topp claimed co-authorship of), but giving families a
break apparently involves childcare, affordable housing strategies, pensions
and, of course, pharmacare, in case you thought Martin Singh would let you
forget. Also tossed in were school nutrition programs, midwives and Peggy
Nash’s idea of “home sharing” between seniors and students as part of the
affordability of housing. (Has anyone had to live with their grandparents? It’s
not for the faint of heart, and one can certainly imagine a vast difference
between things like quiet times, cleanliness, visitors and the like.)

The next segment was meant to be a kind of
mock question period – candidates were supposed to ask each other about a
distinction – and not nuance – within their policy positions, and get a
follow-up question and answer. And that was great – we had a bit of actual
debate taking place for the first time. Brian Topp asked Thomas Mulcair about
rate cuts and income taxes on the “one percent,” and there was some
back-and-forth on capital gains versus taxing stock options. Dewar asked
Mulcair about his position on bulk water exports, and Mulcair started getting
testy when Dewar repeated the question when Mulcair, to be fair, was pretty
clear in saying he was against them. Cullen wondered why Dewar made a point of
getting more women in politics and then turned around to name a putative deputy
leader in Charlie Angus – another man, and someone else from Ontario at that,
to which Dewar talked about Angus’s ability to connect with the grassroots,
along with stories about his mother (former mayor of Ottawa) and how she taught
him about feminism and sharing power. Ashton lobbed a softball to Singh about
family reunification, which Singh was all for – and when the moderator called
her on it, she said that according to the rules, she was asking about an
omission. Singh asked about – you guessed it – pharmacare and how Dewar
planned to fund his one-page promise on healthcare (Dewar: “tax justice,” and I
got the same economist who vetted the party platform to vet mine); Saganash
asked about Topp making himself vulnerable to the Conservative attack machine
with talk of income tax hikes (Topp: We have to win this argument!); and then
Mulcair and Nash both went after Cullen for his “joint nomination” proposal,
which Cullen defended on the back of the “broken and flawed” voting system in
this country. (Seriously – it’s not broken or flawed just because it doesn’t
give you results you want or when you present it alongside flawed national
numbers that aren’t a proper reflection of the process).

There was a single French round on rural
families, the answer to which seemed to be nurse practitioners. Also, pharmacare.
The final round was on the topic of making Old Age Security sustainable, the
answer to which was largely focused on rolling back tax cuts, especially for

On the queer front, we were almost entirely
absent from the debate on “giving families a break” – the closest shout-outs
being when Nash mentioned fighting for same-sex benefits as a union negotiator
and alluded to gay families with Modern
, but that was about it.

Overall, as far as debate goes, it was
still pretty lacklustre, with the exception of the “question period” segment. Hey, if we could have a full hour-and-a-half (or two hours) of that kind of
format, it might be more lively and informative. That said, the rest of the “debate,”
the candidates were still debating with the phantom menace of Stephen Harper
rather than each other. I will give the organizers snaps for ditching the human
backdrop, as we were no longer distracted by the woman with the gigantic
handkerchief, the yawning or Bruce Hyer falling asleep after checking his

The next official debate is in Quebec City –
in French – in two weeks. I guess we’ll see if the candidates can pull it off
(some of them still have pretty shaky French) and if the organizers make any
other tweaks – hopefully to make more of it in the “question period” format
that will actually see some differences emerge.

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