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Conservative, NDP debates a show of contrast

By Chantal HÉbert      

Watching the two leadership campaigns, someone unfamiliar with Canadian politics could be forgiven for thinking that it is the Conservatives and not the New Democrats who have been out in the wilderness for so long that they are desperate to jump on anything that glitters, even when it is manifestly fool's gold.

NDP MPs and leadership candidates Peter Julian, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron, and Niki Ashton.
The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright and Sam Garcia

To compare the leadership debates of the Conservatives and the New Democrats on the basis of the latter’s first all-candidates meeting is to engage in a study in contrast.

The Conservative campaign features an overcrowded podium, essentially proving in the process that an abundance of candidates does not automatically translate into an abundance of riches.

More than half of the 14 contenders for Stephen Harper’s succession would have no business in the race if party members were serious about treating the capacity to communicate efficiently in either official language as a prerequisite for national leadership.

Of the four declared NDP candidates only Ontario MP Charlie Angus would not be comfortable on the set of a French-language talk show such as Radio-Canada’s much-watched Tout le monde en parle (TLMEP).

But if Angus were running for the Conservatives, he would be considered more fluent than most of his rivals. It would not take years of practice to raise his French-language skills to a more user-friendly level.

Niki Ashton, Peter Julian and Guy Caron are all up to the task of switching relatively seamlessly between French and English.

As an aside, before dismissing the ability to pass the TLMEP test early in one’s leadership tenure as non-consequential, consider that the vast majority of the Conservative and New Democrat leadership contenders are anything but household names in most of Canada.

In Quebec, the main shortcut to a higher profile is an appearance on a broadcast whose audience extends far beyond the ranks of the political news junkies.

And then, some of the characters that have dominated the Conservative lineup to date have been polarizing figures that seem as eager to fight the premiers, the mayors of Canada’s big cities or even Canada’s diversity as to take on Justin Trudeau.

Perhaps because she has been losing momentum since the new year, Kellie Leitch has been doubling down on her bid to impose a so-called values test on immigrants and refugees. Two weeks ago the former Conservative minister revealed that she would have border officials check whether immigration and refugee applicants are willing to work hard in Canada. Raise your hand if you expect anyone to answer in the negative. Last week, Leitch vouched to cut off the federal funding for public transit of the cities that have officially declared themselves safe havens for undocumented immigrants. Those notably include Toronto and Montreal.

Reality TV personality Kevin O’Leary has said he would go after the provinces that impose a moratorium on shale gas drilling.

He would reduce the transfers for social services and/or equalization to provinces like British Columbia and Quebec by the same amount they collect from a carbon tax.

He has declared all-out war on the premiers of Alberta and Ontario.

It seems a lot of Conservative members are craving for a federal party that is on permanent combat mode against the other levels of government.

If there was one complaint about Sunday’s NDP event, it was that it was too consensual to qualify as an actual debate.

There is no doubt that more policy differences will emerge as time goes on. The NDP vote will not take place until this fall. The pipeline issue for one tends to put the New Democrats in power or aspiring to win government in the Prairies on a collision course with those on the campaign trail in British Columbia and with many activists in Central and Atlantic Canada.

But the absence of a cat fight should not be confused with an absence of content.

For instance, Caron—who trained as an economist—is championing a guaranteed basic income program. That’s an idea some Liberals would like to own in time for the next federal election.

It is not clear that any of the contenders for either opposition party could beat Trudeau in 2019. But it is possible, based on the early evidence, to imagine any of the four on the NDP stage leading a united party against the Liberals in the next campaign.

That is not necessarily true of some of the leading contenders for the Conservative leadership.

Watching the two leadership campaigns, someone unfamiliar with Canadian politics could be forgiven for thinking that it is the Conservatives and not the New Democrats who have been out in the wilderness for so long that they are desperate to jump on anything that glitters, even when it is manifestly fool’s gold.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star. This column was released on March 14. 

The Hill Times 

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