The first Toronto meeting for NDP leadership hopefuls last Saturday, August 24, lacked snap, crackle and pop, but it did show where Jack Layton will have the edge on his chief rival, Bill Blaikie.Not everyone is here at the Steelworkers Hall on Cecil, where NDP Youth are having their convention. No sign of Lorne Nystrom, and Joe Comartin has sent his son Eric. While Pierre Ducasse is here, this is mostly a match between frontrunners Layton and Blaikie.
In the TV age, it's the little things that matter, and as the candidates head to the front, I note that the Manitoba MP, a man of girth, is wearing a tight golf shirt tucked inside the pants, not unlike the chemise that Alliance leader Stephen Harper wore the Sunday night Paul Martin resigned/was fired and that has caused the fading Opposition leader no end of ridicule ever since.
Layton, on the other hand, wears a crisp blue shirt and a red tie; like everything he does these days, a calculated move: "You're NDP youth, but I take you seriously," the subtle message.
Attire is but the first of Blaikie's bad moves this aft. On a range of issues he adopts the role of defender of the party, insisting the NDP has been misunderstood. On the inability of his colleagues to attract the social movements, Blaikie says it's not the party's fault. "We've been part of the anti-globalization movement since it began," he says. The problem is with the movement itself, which doesn't see much use working with a political party.'
Then there is the Quebec question, which may prove to be especially difficult for the unilingual Blaikie, although he reads an answer to one question in French and the accent doesn't sound as bad as you might think. But think of how fluent he'd be by now if he'd taken those free government French lessons when he arrived in Ottawa as an MP nearly 25 years ago.
But, perhaps more seriously, there is the party's Quebec policy itself, which is emerging as the dark-horse issue of the campaign. NDP caucus support of the Liberal Clarity Bill was seen by many as an affront to longstanding policy supporting Quebec's right to self-determination, and an attack on a provincial party -- the Parti Quebecois -- that shares many of the social democratic principles of the NDP.
In fact, there are ex-NDPers among the PQ caucus. (There is no provincial NDP in la belle province.) Furthermore, as youth member Nathan Hauch points out to Blaikie, the party's federal council took a position against the Clarity Bill, which Blaikie and the caucus ignored.
Blaikie, however, says the intent of the resolution was vague, as are the party's views on Quebec generally. "We're in favour of asymmetrical federalism (more powers for Quebec than other provinces), but we're also in favour of a strong central government. We send out conflicting messages.'
Layton, on the other hand, defty replies that he would have followed federal council's direction and voted against the Clarity Bill, saying the issue is one of party democracy.
The question that proves the biggest test for the candidates is the last -- what to do to help the most persecuted sexual minority in Canada today, transsexuals. Comartin, Ducasse and Blaikie say they aren't familiar with the issue, although Blaikie adds that he's been on the phone to Svend Robinson to ask what the NDP should do about upcoming hearings on same-sex marriage. Layton, on the other hand, perks up, sensing an opportunity. "What my transsexual friends tell me is that they are hauled down to Cherry Beach and beaten up," he says. "They experience unbelievable discrimination and fear."
Round to Layton, and match as well. A quick survey of the room after the debate suggests that it's the hometown candidate who's done best.
Maggie MacDonald, a past provincial NDP candidate in eastern Ontario and the moderator of today's debate, says she was close to a decision before today's event, but the exchange confirmed her inclinations -- she'll vote Layton. "Jack actually goes out into the world," she says. And Carlos Sosa, who hails from the very same riding as Blaikie -- Winnipeg Transcona -- is supporting Layton, not his local MP. "Bill, I know him personally and I respect him. But we need someone with fresh ideas.'