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NDP leadership candidates waiting for Conservative leadership furor to die down before entering race

By Laura Ryckewaert, Chelsea Nash      

There is also a provincial election in British Columbia in May that party members will be preoccupied with until then.

Peter Julian, top left, was the first to jump into the NDP leadership race, but with a debate less than a month away, others, including Charlie Angus, top right, Guy Caron, bottom left, Niki Ashton, and Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh are expected to follow soon. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright, Chelsea Nash, and Wikimedia Commons
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According to NDP insiders and MPs, potential candidates for the NDP leadership race are thinking that the later, the better, when it comes to announcing their bid.

The main reasoning behind this comes down to being able to get the most attention.

With 14 candidates dramatically fighting for leadership of the Conservative Party right now, and American President Donald Trump “gobbling up” space within Canadian news cycles, “you can imagine a shrewd NDP candidate would want to let that bad news go” before trying to compete with it, said Alice Funke of Pundits’ Guide.

She said a number of people within the party have suggested to her that’s a major cause for the delay in candidates announcing.

NDP MPs Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway, B.C.) and Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.), agree that the Conservative leadership race is a deterrent for potential NDP candidates right now.

“There is no holdup,” Mr. Davies said. Because the NDP’s convention was held last April, the leadership race was extraordinarily long. No one expected candidates to join the race right away.

And, no one expected 14 candidates to be in the Conservative leadership race. Mr. Davies said this is a reason why candidates might still be hedging.

The exception is MP Peter Julian, who just announced his candidacy for the leadership over the weekend.

Mr. Julian might be the only candidate officially in the race, but there are at least four others “circling one another,” says Ms. Funke.

That list includes MPs Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.), Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.), and Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, Que.), who just resigned his finance critic role to explore his leadership options, and Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, who was just recently featured in GQ magazine for his social media savvy and political ambitions.

“It’s like the penguins on the ice problem,” she said. “The first penguin off the ice is afraid to jump in because they’ll be eaten by the predator,” meaning the first candidate in might be subject to more scrutiny than the others, and have a harder time trying to reposition themselves as candidates with competing policies join them.  

Robin Sears, an NDP pundit and principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said while he doesn’t understand it himself, what he’s heard is candidates are feeling “that it’s better to be last than first…because you can get more attention, and the field will be established,” which might make it easier to contrast themselves against their competitors.

Mr. Sears also said the key candidates are already organizing behind the scenes, despite not having officially registered. He added another bird analogy to Ms. Funke’s penguin one: there’s lots of activity…It’s kind of like the ducks on the pond, there doesn’t seem to be much happening [on the surface], but [there’s] furious pedalling underneath.”

Mr. Rankin said in addition to the Conservative leadership race, candidates might also be considering the upcoming provincial election in British Columbia on May 9.

“A lot of our membership is from British Columbia. One doesn’t want to interfere with the election in B.C. So that was one of the reasons that the party, in its wisdom, decided to wait until after the election” to hold the leadership election.

Between now and then, Mr. Rankin said, “fundraising and people’s attention, at least in my province, is going to be on the provincial election.” Then, it’s summer.

“So the idea was to set it in October. Some people think that’s too long, but there’s good reason.” The next leader of the party will be chosen no later than Oct. 29.

The NDP is also the only major federal party with the unique system of having one large party that includes the provincial NDP.

Ms. Funke said regardless of the reasoning, she does think it’s about time for candidates to enter the race. “I do think it’s past time, honestly, for these folks to declare,” she said. “If they’re circling each other to wait and see who goes first, that is not the kind of bravery that is called for to take on this kind of challenge. They should step forward and step up and be brave.”

She might not have to wait too much longer. With Mr. Julian in the race now, and a leadership debate scheduled in Ottawa for March 12, the feeling is candidates will start to officially launch their campaigns over the next few weeks.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the party wouldn’t have scheduled the debate unless they had had consultations with the prospective candidates, and so this will all come to an end very soon,” Mr. Sears said.

National director of the NDP Robert Fox said “we are confident that there will be multiple candidates for the first leadership debate in Ottawa,” via an email from party spokesperson George Smith.

Mulcair an awkward factor for candidates  

All MPs who spoke to The Hill Times for this story denied there was any problem with Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) staying on as leader throughout the campaign, during which some candidates may critique his track record.  

“I think Tom has made it clear…He said he’s going to be steering this ship into port, and [wants] to hand off this ship to the new captain, whoever that may be, in tip-top shape,” Mr. Rankin said.

But, some within the party believe there will be an awkwardness to criticizing Tom Mulcair’s leadership while he is still the one leading.

A former NDP staffer, who did not want to be identified in order not to jeopardize future employment with the party, said there’s a fear of Tom Mulcair in caucus. “Have you seen what he can do in Question Period? He’s a powerhouse,” the former staffer said.

The former staffer said while people respect the work Mr. Mulcair has done for the party, “it’s a really delicate dance, always respecting your predecessor, but having the balls to step into the spotlight.”

But, Ms. Funke said Mr. Mulcair’s leadership and the leadership race are two separate issues. “A successful candidate is one who lays out the plan and the vision for where to go next, not to belabour what’s just happened [in the last election],” she said.

Fundraising likely not an issue to hold candidates back

Ms. Funke said despite fundraising for the NDP overall being lower than what it has been in recent years, it’s “basically back at 2011 levels.”

“I think a serious leadership contestant will not have difficulty raising,” Ms. Funke said.  

Mr. Sears agreed. “There may be issues with raising enough money at the front end, but there’s quite a huge cadre of people they can go to and demand some money from. Using an excuse like a lack of fundraising ability might suggest the candidate shouldn’t be in the race in the first place.

Mr. Sears said he thinks the lower party fundraising is in part because “some people are saving their cash to support a candidate or two.”

cnash@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash

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