March 5, 2012-The New Democratic Party leadership race reached Old Montreal yesterday, with only three weeks to the convention and all the contenders convened in this city for the second NDP national French-language debate.
There were over 1000 spectators in attendance at the afternoon’s debate, not just NDP members – but friends of the party and supporters, in addition to the throngs of photographers and TV cameras. Many regulars in the working press had not seen or felt such an energy or excitement at an event held at that particular hall, long notorious for its immense, cavernous space between the entrance doors and the speaker’s platform.
Thomas Mulcair, a twenty-minute #55 bus ride away from his home constituency, had been looking forward to this event for months as his chance to be the hometown hero and belle of the ball. He did not disappoint his supporters, who were out in force at Marche Bonsecures, on a brisk yet bright Sunday afternoon.
Mr.Mulcair had been the focus of intense scrutiny over the past several days as the National Post reported Friday that he had originally discussed arrangements with the Conservatives before joining the NDP in 2007.
By the end of the afternoon however, Mr.Mulcair’s supporters were able to breathe a sigh of relief that he had managed to weather this storm, although his reception at the end was, in all likelihood, nowhere near as unanimously supportive of Mr.Mulcair as his base would have hoped when they pictured this event taking place several months ago.
In fact, the support and recognition from the crowd for all the candidates was so even-handed that one could hardly detect a local favourite among them, let alone a unanimous choice.
The debate, held exclusively in French, consisted of opening statements and remarks by each candidate, followed by questions the candidates could pose of each other and questions for specific candidates asked by the moderator, who happened to be Mario Dumont — former leader of the Action Democratique du Quebec and current Montreal-area television host.
While the question period started with the candidates posing questions to mostly Mr.Mulcair, the rapidity of the format (Mr.Dumont held the speakers strictly accountable to their allotted times) and the clarity of the responses moved the debate, more of a discussion really, to a shared meeting between members of a growing party. A far cry from the leadership drive in-fighting and squabbling that has been the fear from the Canadian press.
The most heated exchange occurred between Martin Singh and Brian Topp, when Singh accused Topp of lying — Brian calmly pointed out that the statements he had made on the subject were his own and he stood by his own opinions and perspectives.
And that is the way the afternoon went, even when subjects were being discussed where valid differences of opinion exist — the issue of equalizing the tax rates so richest Canadians have to pay their fair share, for example — information and perspectives were shared in a respectful, progressive tone; befitting of a group who have come to realize that they are all integral parts of the same party and a far cry from the shenanigans and brouhaha that passes for debate up in Ottawa, at the Commons.
The fact that the debate was in French, provide Quebecers and Canadians nation-wide with the opportunity to gauge the fluency and functionality of the candidates working in both languages. The ability to communicate in French, both being able to speak and to listen, is one of the most sacredly guarded pre-requisites that Quebecers look for in a leader.
The subject was again raised when the quality of French from candidates Paul Dewar and Nathan Cullen was questioned — both men, who although functionally bilingual, pledged that they will continue to work every day to improve their French — remarks that were very warmly received by the Montreal crowd.
Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, who is the youngest of the remaining NDP leadership candidates, was the consensus choice as the biggest surprise of the afternoon by Montrealers, a large number in attendance who had not been aware of how functionally fluent and tenacious in both languages she could be, and the crowd eventually showed its appreciation.
The high point of the afternoon, generating an unsolicited cheer from the enraptured audience was when Ms. Ashton made the callout to maintain focus on putting a stop to Stephen Harper’s administration – receiving a spontaneous and large-scale applause, in open disregard for Mr. Dumont’s “hold your applause until the end” directive, from a membership who may be getting tired of all the internal squabbles occurring during the leadership run.
Onwards and Upwards! As a member of Brian Topp’s campaign team put it, “we’re now in ‘crunch time’, with only three weeks to go until the convention.”
A large part of how Canadians will be forced to spend their next three years until the next Federal election will be determined by how the next three weeks unfold within the New Democratic Party.