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Monday, 5 December 2011

NDP leader hopefuls prepare for first debate

The nine people vying for the NDP leadership job are getting ready for Sunday's debate and members of their party are eager to hear what they have to say.


It will be the first time the candidates face off against each other and it is a chance for some of the lesser-known ones to make an impression on NDP members, and Canadians. The contest has already been underway for more than two months and those trying to replace Jack Layton, who died in August, have been busy campaigning across the country. Now they will be drawn together in one room to lay out their visions for their party, side by side.


"I'm very happy that the debates are starting. I think many members of the party, Canadians, want to see who these folks are in the context of the leadership and the debates are a good place to observe that," said NDP MP Andrew Cash. "I'm going to be looking to see real leadership qualities."


Another MP, Glenn Thibeault, said it's been hard to pay constant attention to all of the campaigns so he's anxious to listen to the candidates as they pitch themselves as the best person to take over the NDP caucus.


"Where are we going to go? Where's the vision? I think that's something we all want to start hearing and seeing because we had that with Jack and now we need to look for what our new leader can bring," he said. "Having that large a field gives us an opportunity to hear lots of new and maybe different ideas and opinions."


Charlie Angus, said he'll be looking for a vision, and personality to drive that vision.


"I'm really looking forward to seeing what they have to say and who is really going to emerge as a leader," he said.


It will be a crowded stage at Ottawa's Convention Centre for the afternoon event, scheduled from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET. The candidates – Niki Ashton, Robert Chisholm, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Romeo Saganash, Martin Singh, Brian Topp – will be taking questions that were submitted to the NDP from the public and will have a chance to give their views. There will also be opportunities for them to debate each other.


The contest so far has been tame and polite, but Sunday's debate might mark a turning point with candidates striving to set themselves apart and challenging each other's policy proposals. The theme for the two-hour debate is the economy and some of the candidates have already released policy statements on the topic.


Ottawa MP Paul Dewar said he's looking forward to debating his jobs plan, and other issues.


"The debates also allow Canadians to see the policy and style differences between us. Since I launched my campaign, I have introduced new policy ideas on issues like Canada's jobs deficit, improving health care, and demanding support for communities like Attawapiskat. For me, the debates should be about issues like these, issues that impact the lives of Canadians," he said in an email.


Toronto MP Peggy Nash released her economic policy statement on Friday, timed well given Sunday's theme.


"I'm looking forward to sharing my ideas about exactly where the Conservatives are getting it wrong in their economic approach, and what a New Democratic government would do differently to get Canada back on the right track," she told CBC News.


Martin Singh, a pharmacist from Nova Scotia is pitching himself as the business-friendly NDP candidate who wants a national entrepreneurship strategy. Singh and Topp are the only two candidates who have no elected experience, but Topp has a long history with the party, was close to Jack Layton, and was president of the federal NDP until he stepped down to enter the leadership race.


"I don’t know Martin Singh at all and I'm doing to be very interested to find out a little more about him," said Cash.


Some of the candidates acknowledge that such a large group of them poses some challenges.


"There are a lot of colleagues on the stage and so, while the debates will be a great opportunity to showcase how great our team is, there won't be an enormous amount of airtime for each of us," said Topp. "I'm hoping to be able to make a few key points about my priorities – about how we'll defeat the Harper government in the next election, and do so for a purpose."


"Having nine great candidates on stage is a wonderful way to showcase our party's talent, but it means no one candidate will dominate the event. I am looking forward to having a pleasant and constructive exchange," Thomas Mulcair said.


Quebec MP Françoise Boivin, who is backing Topp, plans to attend the debate in person Sunday. "I think he's going to be great," she said. Boivin is looking forward to hearing from his rivals as well.


"Now it's going to be time to put a bit of meat around the bone, tell members their vision," she said.


The candidates will be thinking on their feet – they don't know the questions in advance – and for the second hour of the debate, they will have to think and respond in French.


That's an easier task for some than others. Chisholm and Dewar, for example, acknowledge their French is on the weak side while others are fully bilingual or proficient in both official languages. Bilingualism has become an important issue for the NDP since the May 2 election when Quebec helped sweep it to Official Opposition. More than half of the NDP's seats now come from the province.


The debate is being moderated by two Parliament Hill journalists, Stephen Maher and Joël-Denis Bellavance. It is open to the public and the NDP is broadcasting the debate on its website.


Sunday is the first in a series of six debates, more are scheduled over the coming weeks in Halifax, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver. The new leader will be elected March 24 in Toronto.

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