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‘What you’re seeing is people starting to mobilize,’ Angus, Ashton, Julian, Singh, among those expected to run in still-vacant NDP leadership race

By Laura Ryckewaert      

With a year to go until a vote, sources say there’s puzzlement among some but little concern overall on the lack of any candidates.

Among those believed to be considering a run at the top NDP leadership race are, from the top left, NDP MPs Charlie Angus, Peter Julian, Niki Ashton, and Ontario NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh, and above left, NDP MP Guy Caron. Already confirmed out of the race are former NDP MP Megan Leslie, and current NDP MPs Alexandre Boulerice and Nathan Cullen. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade, Jake Wright, Chelsea Nash, and from Wikimedia Commons
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PARLIAMENT HILL—It’s been three months and no one has yet entered the race to become the next federal NDP leader, but prospective candidates are sizing up support and potential competitors with one or two expected to announce before year’s end.

Five names of likely candidates are currently floating around, including NDP MPs Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook-Aski, Man.), Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.), Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basuqes, Que.), and Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.), as well as Ontario NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh, the MPP for Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Ont.

Mr. Angus is currently NDP caucus chair, while Mr. Julian is NDP House leader, and the other MPs hold various critic roles.

Some likely candidates have already ruled out runs at the leadership, including NDP MPs Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) and Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, Que.), both citing family reasons and the demands of a leadership campaign. Former MP Megan Leslie has similarly indicated she doesn’t have an interest this time around when repeatedly asked, including recently on Twitter on Oct. 8.

With a year to go until a vote, sources say there’s puzzlement among some but little concern overall on the lack of any candidates, with MPs now focused on work in the House of Commons after getting a chance to vent at the caucus retreat in Montreal last month.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see the first candidate at least step forward by the end of the month. There’s a kind of debate of: Do you want to be the first one in or do you want to wait until the field shapes up until you jump in?” said Robin MacLachlan, vice-president of Summa Strategies and a former NDP staffer.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being first out of the gate, he said. On the one hand, “you get the opportunity to brand your candidacy in the eyes of members” and “frame what the race is about.” But on the other hand, it makes you a target for scrutiny and officially subject to the rules that come with a leadership race.

“With 12 months out from a race, there’s plenty of time for candidates to announce and to build their organizations,” said Mr. MacLachlan. “Any potential candidates are viewing that amount of time as a very long race.”

He said he expects the field will “shape up considerably by the end of this year and the beginning of next.” Already some potential candidates “are talking about this quite a bit,” he said.

“I think, rather than anxiety, what you’re seeing is people starting to mobilize and trying to encourage people to run,” said Mr. MacLachlan.

Declaring before the end of the year would also have some fundraising advantages, said Mr. MacLachlan, as a candidate could tap into supporters under two different donation caps, one for 2016 and the one for 2017.

The rules for leadership fundraising were amended in 2014, changing it from a cap for the entire duration of the race to now being a cap based on calendar year, with individuals able to donate a total of $1,525 to campaigns in 2016 and $1,550 in 2017—outside of the similar fundraising caps placed on annual donations to political parties.

The NDP leadership race officially kicked off at the beginning of July after party members voted in favour of holding a leadership race in a review vote at a convention in Edmonton last April. While many at convention had anticipated a close vote, the decision to hold a race surprised many, given the NDP’s history of not turfing leaders after one bad election result. But expectations have changed following the 2011 result, under the leadership of the late Jack Layton, that brought the NDP to the status of official opposition for the first time. As well, polls before that last election showed NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) poised to become prime minister.

Interested candidates have until July 3 next year to register for the leadership race, which is being run under new rules that will see party members vote by a series of ballots starting Sept. 18 next year and a new leader to be announced no later than Oct. 29.

There’s a $1.5-million spending limit per candidate for the race, not including the $30,000 non-refundable registration fee, the cost of fundraising and travel, and any child care for the candidate or campaign team, among other exemptions.

An NDP insider told The Hill Times that “certainly for the membership it is puzzling” that no one has yet entered the race. This person said members “wanted that leadership race and they want to have debates and they want to see what the next steps are for the party and who’s best to bring it forward,” and “it’s a bit of a problem to live in that vacuum, especially when you look at the Conservative Party and the numerous candidates they have.”

“I’m expecting people to announce and membership are expecting people to announce soon. The fiscal year is closing, so in terms of taping into the donor base and the support base, there’s only two months and a half left for 2016,” said the insider, adding right now there’s “a bit of a cat-and-mouse game going on with the leadership candidates … a bit of wait-and-see approach.”

While the job of leader is never easy, and there’s no guarantee of becoming the next prime minister, it’s no “poisoned chalice,” as recently described by some in media, and it’s a question of fighting for values, said the insider. The “big challenge” for the NDP will come once the Conservative Party has chosen its new leader, then “it’s going to be two permanent leaders and a party still looking for one.”

Speaking with The Hill Times last week, Mr. Cullen said after being taken “somewhat by surprise” by the decision of the NDP membership at the convention last spring, he seriously considered running but ultimately decided against it given his young family and the necessary commitment that comes with being leader.

“I didn’t think that I could give my full self to it and so that right away made it me trying to convince myself rather than this feeling like the right thing at the right time,” he said.

Mr. Cullen said he thinks no one has yet announced because “the party chose such a long race.” Speaking from the experience having run for the leadership in 2012 (a roughly six-month race) he said, “it’s just a very, very long time to sustain the energy, the fundraising, the momentum” that’s needed, and he also “would have probably not declared by now either.”

That said, Mr. Cullen said the party “had its reasons” for choosing the race it did, with a B.C. provincial election in May being one factor. Through his work with the House Electoral Reform Committee in recent months, he’s also learned that “more time is better” for underrepresented groups, like women, in politics, as “typically men have an advantage in getting a candidacy of any kind, local nomination or leadership, put together in a short amount of time.”

“I don’t know if that was the party’s intention, but it is a secondary benefit,” he said. “Even though we have sometimes uncomfortable stories like, ”Where are all the candidates?’ They’re coming.”

Despite the NDP’s disappointing result in the last election, the federal caucus is still “a good sized group” historically, and the “myth was broken in the last election” that Canadians would “never consider the NDP for government,” said Mr. Cullen.

“You get over it, right. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. … You can only stay there so long, so we’re moving on,” said Mr. Cullen. “The phone calls are happening in increasing frequency as people start to make their intentions known.”

He said he expects “one or two” candidates to declare before Christmas “to try to get some early momentum,” but he thinks “the lion’s share” will declare in early 2017. Mr. Cullen said while for those observing the race from the outside “it may look strange” no one has yet declared, he’s “convinced” that once a new leader is chosen next fall, “these early days will be entirely forgotten.”

After topping some polls heading into the 2015 federal election, the NDP has slipped back to third place, sitting at 11 per cent in an average of September 2016 polls by Éric Grenier posted to ThreeHundredEight.com, with the Liberals at 49.8 and Conservatives at 29.5.

But a source close to the NDP said, “New Democrats are pretty hardened to poll numbers. … The occasions when they’ve been good to New Democrats you can name on the fingers of one hand.”

Meanwhile, the previous NDP insider said the polls mean little until all three parties have leaders in place that will take them into the next election.

Mr. Cullen said he thinks the popularity of the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) is based on both “celebrity” and the “progressive policies” that were put forward last election, but “many of the policies Canadians voted for were our policies.” With some “big ticket items” coming to head, on First Nations issues, climate change, and pipelines for example, he said, “it’s proving a challenge for [Mr. Trudeau] to keep those promises.”

“A great advantage for the NDP is to confidently and with credibility present ourselves as the party to actually fulfill some of the things people voted or in the last election,” said Mr. Cullen, adding there’s lots of “growth potential.”

“We’ve been through a bit … but there’s a real focus and determination. We all have an enormous amount of work to do.”

The source close to the NDP said many were expecting Mr. Mulcair to make plans to step down as leader by the end of the year, as it’s “tricky” holding a leadership contest with“implicit or explicit” criticisms of the outgoing guard while they’re still in place. This person said a lack of timeline for Mr. Mulcair’s exit is part of the reason for the delay in candidates. There’s also something of a wait-and-see approach among interested NDP candidates, said the source, with some “wavering” after watching presumed Conservative leadership heavyweights like Peter MacKay and Tony Clement bow out of that race. The race may not “really begin until some time late next spring,” said the source.

During the fall caucus retreat, there were “huge rumblings” with “more than a dozen caucus members who spoke out strongly in that discussion about trying to find a way forward that didn’t involve either Tom having to leave immediately or staying until next summer, and he just turned them down.” But that’s been put to bed for now, with MPs focused on work in the House of Commons, said the source.

Meanwhile, there’s something of a “Jack Layton search” underway by “a number of New Democrats,” who are looking outside to caucus to the municipal and provincial levels, and even the NGO and labour communities, to try to find prospective leadership candidates. Back in 2003, Mr. Layton jumped from municipal politics to become federal party leader.

“I expect that process will probably heat up the longer the absence of any obvious frontrunner from the usual suspects,” said the source.

The Hill Times

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