While Republican hopefuls battle it out for the presidential nomination, The New Democratic Party, Canada’s official opposition, is in the process of finding a new leader. Their former head, Jack Layton, died of cancer last August, only a few months after leading the NDP to the best federal election result in its history, when the left-wing party won 103 of 308 seats in the House of Commons. The process of finding a successor for Layton will end on March 24, at a convention in Toronto.
It’s surprised me how little noise the NDP leadership race has made up here, in comparison to the Republican race in the US. Some of that has to do with the nature of the job; the Republican nominee runs for President right away, while the NDP leader will almost certainly be Leader of the Opposition for three-and-a-half years before the next Canadian federal election comes around. Still, the Canadian press is oddly uninterested in the process.
I spoke with a friend of mine, the provincial campaign chair for one of the candidates, who agreed. “We give the media lots of stuff,” he said. “They’d rather talk about what [Liberal Party of Canada leader] Bob Rae had for breakfast.” The NDP race is, to be fair, an inherently quieter process than American primary elections. There are no province-by-province votes, meaning no mounting total of delegates to watch. The NDP’s membership list, the voters who’ll elect the leader, isn’t released to outside pollsters, so even making a guess about who’s leading the race becomes difficult. And the candidates have good reason not to go negative and risk alienating each other or voters.
To elaborate on that: the new NDP leader will be elected by a vote among party members. Probably one to two percent of Canadians are members of various federal political parties; members can be activists helping to shape their party’s constitution and platform, or simply like-minded individuals who occasionally donate or volunteer in support of the party. Every NDP member across Canada, about 130,000 people, will be able to cast their vote through the mail, by Internet, or at the Toronto convention. Voters will rank the candidates by order of preference. Assuming nobody gets above 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, subsequent ballots will continue with at least one candidate eliminated each round—all candidates who get below one percent, or the candidate with the lowest total of votes. The voters for each eliminated candidate will be re-distributed according to the next eligible choice on their ballots. This all means that the candidates have good reason not to slam their competition—they all want as many first-place votes as possible, but the second-place and possibly third-place votes are likely to prove important as well.
Nine candidates began the process; two have dropped out. Remaining are Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, Nathan Cullen, Nikki Ashton, and Martin Singh. The first four are the consensus frontrunners. Mulcair, a former Minister with the provincial Liberal party in Quebec, is somewhat to the right of the rest of the field. Topp, a former President of the national NDP, was also the chief of staff to Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow. Nash, another past NDP President, has been a negotiator for the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Dewar, once a teacher, has served as the party’s Foreign Affairs critic. Cullen’s a former consultant, Ashton a former academic, and Singh a former pharmacist. Of the seven candidates, only Topp is not currently a sitting Member of Parliament.
The differences between candidates are points of emphasis and perhaps of electoral style. None that I can see seem to be playing specifically to one faction of the party or another. Nor, for that matter, do they seem to be playing to any particular region or another. That’s notable, given the odd situation in which the NDP finds itself after the last election.
For a generation or so, Canadian federal politics were defined by three parties: the mostly right-wing Progressive Conservatives, the center or center-left Liberal Party, and the left-wing NDP. The Liberals tended to win elections rather more frequently than the PCs; the NDP were a third party whose greatest success came in the early 70s, when the Liberals won a minority and effectively governed in alliance with the NDP.
The 1993 general election changed things dramatically; in fact, it kicked off a relentless process of change that’s likely still in process. The Progressive Conservatives, which had won majorities in the past two elections, collapsed. The Reform Party, another right-wing party, became the official opposition. Over the following years the right-wing vote in Canada was split between Reform and the PCs, until in 2003 the two parties eventually merged as the current Conservative Party of Canada.
In that same ‘93 election, The Bloc Québecois, a regional nationalist party that only ran candidates in the largely French-speaking province of Québec, won its first seats. Québec is further to the left than most of the country, so the Bloc tended to the left as well. Their primary concern, though, was to advance the cause of Québec in general, and the separation of Québec from Canada in particular.
With the right fragmented, the Liberals won three straight majority governments, a rarity in Canadian history. They took a rightward turn, cutting back on government spending in the name of balancing the budget. Then a scandal erupted over a program that was meant to raise the public profile of the federal government in Québec. Funding had been paid out for little or no work. The scandal seemed to resonate with a growing perception of the Liberals as corrupt, and as feeling entitled to power. It hit hard, especially in Québec, which turned further away from the Liberal Party.
The now-united Conservatives were able to grow stronger as Liberal support declined. The Liberals won a minority in 2004, then the Conservatives took minorities in 2006 and 2008. The 2011 election showed how far the Liberals’ support had fallen, as the party took just 34 seats. Surprisingly, though, they didn’t fare the worst of the major parties. The Bloc Québecois won only four seats out of the 75 ridings in which it ran candidates. The NDP captured many of the former Bloc votes; of the 103 seats they took, a whopping 58 came in Québec.
To put that in perspective, bear in mind that the NDP had only ever elected two MPs from Québec in its entire history. Originally based in the west, it never succeeded in expanding into the distinctive political culture of Québec. But in 2011 the province’s electorate soured (whether temporarily or not is an open question) on the Bloc, and deserted the party en masse. It seems that, uninterested in the Conservative Party’s right-wing policies, and still alienated from the Liberals, the province essentially turned to the NDP in the days right before the election. The party did well outside Québec also—their 45 seats elsewhere in Canada is on its own more seats than the party had won in any prior federal election—but those gains were overshadowed by the victories in Québec. Even the Bloc at its height never won as many seats in Québec as the NDP.
So it was a terrific result, but in many ways left the party in a strange position. To start with, it looks like many of the new MPs were voted in due to party affiliation rather than for their own individual character and history. In particular, eyebrows were raised by the case of Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the new MP for the riding of Berthier–Maskinongé. Brosseau, a single mother employed as an assistant bar manager in the Ottawa area, a roughly three-hours’ drive from the riding she now represents, appears not to have been fluent in French at the time of the election. 98 percent of the population of her riding is francophone; 77 percent can’t speak English. The fact that Brosseau took a vacation during the election campaign suggests that she herself didn’t expect to win.
Also among the new MPs were four undergraduate students from Montreal’s McGill University, as well as 40-year-old landscape architect Jamie Nicholls, who attends McGill’s School of Urban Planning. Another student, 19-year-old Jean-Luc Dusseault, who majors in Applied Politics at the Université de Sherbrooke, became the youngest MP in Canadian history. And in the riding of Laurier–Sainte-Marie Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was defeated by a policy researcher and part-time karate instructor.
Numerous media talking heads were shocked and, in some cases, outraged by these results. Personally, I thought they were clear signs of a functioning democracy. Why shouldn’t students and working single mothers be represented in Parliament? If the Commons are there to legislate for every class of the people, why shouldn’t every class of the people be represented? It’s hardly unusual for candidates not to live in the ridings they represent, or even—admittedly, usually in the case of higher-profile MPs—not to visit their ridings during an election campaign.
Still, for the NDP it represented an odd problem as the leadership race got underway. Slightly more than half of the party’s MPs were from Québec, but only 1700 rank-and-file members out of 85,000. After a membership drive, during which leadership candidates recruited new members to vote for them, the NDP added 45,000 members, including 12,000 members in Québec. On the one hand, that’s a vast improvement. On the other, it’s still less than a tenth of the total party membership.
My friend the campaign worker tells me he hasn’t seen any friction between Québec and the west during the campaign. That’s important. Québec has about a quarter of the country’s population, 75 of 308 seats in the House of Commons, but more than that: it has a distinct culture, and a unique, often-troubled relationship with the rest of Canada. Most of the population speaks French as their first language, and many in Québec are highly alert to any slight or potential threat to their language or culture. The NDP never really found a way to speak to Québec before selecting Layton, who was bilingual and born and raised in Québec, as their leader. Now, it has to find a way to continue to appeal to the province if it hopes to have any chance to hold its ground in the next election.
That begins, almost certainly, with selecting a fluently bilingual leader. All of the candidates are at least competent in French, and of the front-runners Mulcair, Topp, and Nash are fluent. Dewar’s grasp of French, on the other hand, has been a cause for concern among some. This indirectly led to the greatest moment of public tension so far in the leadership campaign.
Following a French-language debate in Québec City on February 12, the Dewar campaign has tried to head off criticism of Dewar’s French by releasing an internal poll. The numbers in the poll mostly succeeded in grabbing attention away from the debate. It said that Mulcair was leading in first-place vote intentions, with 25 percent of the voters, followed by Nash at just under 17 percent, and then Dewar at 15. Topp, with 12.7 percent, finished just behind fourth-place Cullen’s 12.8. Further, Dewar led with 21.2 percent of decided second-place votes. Again, Topp finished surprisingly low—fifth place, with 12.4 percent.
Topp’s campaign claimed that Dewar’s numbers didn’t match their own polls, which had Topp first with 28 percent of voters. Mulcair, on the other hand, released a poll showing him leading in first-place votes with 31 percent, with Nash at 17.5, Topp at 14.9, and Cullen at 14.2 all well off the pace. This broadly agrees with other data-points. For example, candidates are required to file detailed financial reports with Elections Canada, a non-partisan government body that oversees federal elections, and the most recent reports show that Mulcair has the lead in fundraising, opening a lead over Topp—about CDN $206,000 to CDN $183,000. And the suggestion that Mulcair’s leading the race does seem to explain the perception of a recent debate in Montréal, which saw Mulcair under fire from most of the other candidates; that is, appearing to be a frontrunner having to fend off attacks. On the other hand, one can wonder if Topp’s oddly low score in Dewar’s poll is an outlier, and if so, whether Dewar chose to release this particular poll in part to undermine narratives suggesting that Topp was doing particularly well.
It’s unclear whether any of this will help in predicting the actual result on March 24. It’s also unsure whether, if Mulcair does hold a lead, he’ll also be able to pick up supporters on later ballots. The same factors that make the race difficult to read are also helping to set up an interesting evening on the 24th. Even if it is for the most part a question of counting mail-in ballots—out of those 130,000 members, something over 2200 are expected to be present in Toronto to vote in person—the uncertainty means that the conclusion of the race should be a fascinating climax to a slow-burn narrative. It’ll be an intriguing night to watch; and a night that’ll help to set up the future of the NDP and Canada for at least the next few years.