There are only three or so of the nine candidates for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, and therefore for Leader of the Opposition, who are truly qualified to do the job and do it right now.
One of them is Peggy Nash, who spoke at a “kitchen-table talk” in Edmonton last night. Another is Brian Topp, who was at a similar event here Monday.
While Edmonton New Democrats won’t get a chance to see all the candidates in action debating one another – a situation that can be as distracting as it is enlightening – seeing these two strong candidates in the same meeting room a few days apart provided a worthwhile opportunity to compare their ability to engage a wider audience of Canadians.
Ms. Nash’s resume is superb – she earned the economic chops as finance critic under Jack Layton’s leadership to offer better polices than the Conservatives and make Canadians believe in them, she is fluent in both official languages and she has enormous experience building progressive alliances with Canada’s social movements, including labour where she has been a senior official with the Canadian Auto Workers Union.
Moreover, as she clearly demonstrated yesterday, Ms. Nash is a capable speaker who, as Duncan Cameron of Rabble.ca wrote in his endorsement of her candidacy and in other pieces, speaks with sympathy, humour and coolness under pressure.
Since we are talking about a top player in an elite political league here, though, all this is to be expected. Her performance yesterday demonstrated that she could do the job if New Democrats vote to choose her as leader on March 24.
But Ms. Nash is not merely running for the leadership of a perennial Parliamentary third party but to be Leader of the Opposition and the government-in-waiting of Canada at a crucial moment in our country’s history. As a candidate in that high-stakes league, she needed to show she could really engage and electrify her sympathetic audience of New Democrats, and that didn’t happen.
Now, this was one meeting, in a town that no doubt was at the end of a long and tiring road. But where Mr. Topp energized his audience Monday and turned up the temperature in the room, Ms. Nash was temperate and uninspiring. Her only passionate moment was in response to a question about the planned Conservative vandalism to the national rifle and shotgun registry.
The ability to really grab the attention of an audience and hang onto it is vitally important. As Ms. Nash put it last night in response to a question, “the first goal is to win the next federal election.” But to win the next federal election, the NDP leader is going to have to motivate and move more Canadians than just the familiar and sympathetic old New Democratic faces who dependably show up at meetings like this one and make them feel like church services.
Ms. Nash didn’t say anything with which this New Democrat disagreed, or anyone else in the room by the sound of it, and she made a couple of points I strongly support. As previously noted in this space, I’d be surprised if any of the candidates do anything differently. But unlike Mr. Topp, she didn’t do it in a way that I feel is likely to engage many voters outside NDP circles.
This showed in the responses of the audience. The meeting was chaired by Edmonton-Gold Bar provincial candidate Marlin Schmidt with the same good cheer and discipline he demonstrated Monday. But more questioners rambled on, instead of sticking to their points. It was hard to shake the feeling many of them weren’t really all that anxious to hear what Ms. Nash had to say because when they already knew her answer. It’s the passion that makes you want to listen and, last night at least, the passion was missing.
The audience ran out of steam 15 minutes early. No one could think of another question and Mr. Schmidt gently brought the formal meeting to an end. On Monday, hands were still waving when the time ran out, and the people waving them seemed genuinely upset they didn’t get their chance to query Mr. Topp.
The stakes could hardly be higher than they will be in the next federal election, in 2015 or whenever it takes place. New Democrats need a leader who can reach out and grab Canadian voters by the lapels and give them a good shake.
Based on their Edmonton performances, we know that Mr. Topp has that ability. Whether Ms. Nash does is not so clear. Other voices, of course, are yet to be heard from.
It is an absolute disgrace that these well-attended meetings in the City Arts Centre at 84th Avenue and 109th Street in the midst of NDP MP Linda Duncan’s federal Edmonton-Strathcona riding are being ignored by local mainstream media. It’s embarrassing, really, making Edmonton look like a two-bit hick town unaware there’s a big world outside its civic boundaries.
Ms. Nash, Mr. Topp and the other candidates who will be visiting Edmonton are not campaigning for the leadership of some Alberta fringe party, but to be the Leader of the Opposition of the Parliament of Canada. As unlikely as this may seem to someone who has been imbibing nothing but Alberta political bathwater, Canadian leaders of the Opposition do become prime minister of the whole country now and then. What’s more, sometimes provinces with only one New Democrat MP suddenly take a notion to elect dozens of them.
I doubt the local media are missing these important stories because they’re actually plotting to ignore Canada’s social democratic opposition for sinister political reasons. But they have to be prepared for some of their dwindling numbers of readers and viewers to reach that conclusion anyway and make the effort to find their news elsewhere.
In the last provincial and federal general elections, Edmontonians elected two NDP MLAs and one NDP MP. They voted in significant numbers for the NDP in other ridings. Local media should make at least a half-hearted effort to serve this important part of our community.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.