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NDP leadership hopefuls debate in Victoria

Mar 10 2012

In one of the final debates of the federal NDP leadership race, candidates squared off against one another in front of about 400 people at Esquimalt High School Friday night, with the hopes of differentiating themselves from the pack.

Of the seven candidates in the race — Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, NDP political strategist Brian Topp, Toronto MP Peggy Nash, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh and Manitoba MP Niki Ashton — only Cullen, Dewar, Nash and Topp took part in Friday’s debate.

Cullen defined himself as humorous and charismatic several times and the audience laughed in response. He said that NDPers, while protecting the environment, must make clear that an NDP government is not anti-business. He said changes aimed at achieving environmental sustainability don’t have be presented as painful challenges.

“The solutions are there my friends,” he said, “and they are beautiful.”

Nash touted the party’s social democratic values and promised: “These values I will champion.”

She also hailed her commitment to environmental sustainability, social justice and an electoral system where every vote counts.

Dewar came out strong on Canada’s role as peacekeepers, saying, “It’s time to get back in the business of peacekeeping again.”

Topp talked about the unity on the debate panel and his optimism about the support they have from the party’s 132,000 members. The only real opponent, he said, is Stephen Harper.

Topp said Canada needs to have a climate change plan and subtley distanced himself from Cullen on at least one policy, when he said in his opening remarks: “We can win this ourselves.” As part of his platform, Cullen has suggested that in Conservative-held seats, ridings should have the ability to hold run-off nominations among the NDP, Liberals and Greens to see which party runs.

Much of the debate focused on questions around the environment, which produced broadly similar answers from the candidates. That was exemplified by a question on whether Canada should keep its oil tanker moratorium. “Dahhhh,” was Dewar’s answer, to much laugher.

The only promise of fireworks came with the loaded audience question: If the NDP and Greens were both to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands, would you permit it?

Nash said the best way to work together is to co-operate on a campaign for proportional representation.

Cullen highlighted the threat of another Conservative majority: “I’m asking the NDP to think differently, because this government we face are not our parents’ Conservatives,” he said, adding that he is placing the country ahead of the party, a comment that drew huge applause.

Dewar expressed fear that run-off nominations have the potential to divide the party. He said he would rather build the party by inviting Liberals and Greens to come under the NDP tent.

Topp stressed that the NDP can win federally. The goal, he said, is to elect an NDP government federally and provincially.

For the seven candidates vying for the leadership, B.C. is considered a dealmaker province. It is home to 38,735, or 30 per cent, of the 128,351 members eligible to vote.

Mail-in and online voting is occurring now, with voters able to rank their preferences. Party members can also vote at the NDP convention on March 24 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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