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Thomas Mulcair, NDP Leadership Candidate Town Hall

Tuesday February 21, 2012

My First NDP Event

As part of my new found desire to get involved I decided to attend the Town Hall being held by Thomas Mulcair here in Vancouver at the W2 Media Studio Hall in Gastown.  While I have previously participated in a much more limited fashion as a volunteer for the Alberta Liberals a long time ago, this was something on a whole different scale.  The obvious importance of the NDP Leadership Race provided a very different context from the straggling Alberta Liberal events.  I also decided to provide a series of live tweets to those whom might be interested.  That was also an interesting part of the experience.

Going into this event I didn’t know too much about Mr Mulcair beyond the fact that he had been elected as the second NDP Member of Parliament from Quebec and that he was a former member of Premier Jean Charest’s government.  I also knew that he had been recruited by Jack Layton and that he was widely regarded as his logical successor by many in the media.   But in terms of his policy or even a sense of his personality, I knew next to nothing beyond what I already mentioned.  Being able to go in with relatively few preconceptions was an opportunity to form an opinion of the man based on how he interacted with the people around me, instead of whatever the media provided.

Enter Thomas Mulcair

My first impression was that he seemed genuinely interested in the people present and that he has an impressive enthusiasm.  His opening remarks covered his political history succinctly and outlined his accomplishments in elected office.  He specifically highlighted his time as a Liberal MNA and minister in Mr Charest’s government, an important qualification for the NDP.  Since the NDP has never formed a Federal government, it must attract former provincial members with past governing experience.  The Federal Conservatives also recruited former provincial ministers when it faced the same problem.  He also discussed how working across the political spectrum was required as a Quebec Liberal, as the political divide there is based on the Constitutional question, rather than right wing vs left wing.

Unfortunately, despite the encouraging remarks, when asked directly about the possibility of interparty cooperation, Mr Mulcair was not interested, particularly in the notion of working with the Federal Liberals.  His rationale is that he would rather work to broaden the NDP’s base of support and create this greater cooperation across the political spectrum within the framework of the NDP.  His main goal is to form the first NDP majority Federal government.  He also pointed out how the Liberals had abandoned a coalition agreement in 2008 and how Michael Ignatieff aggressively attacked the NDP vote by attempting to portray the last election as a two party race between the Liberals and Conservatives.  There was more than a hint of bitterness when he concluded his answer by saying that the Liberals were still the same party.

Over the course of the Town Hall there were a few other tough questions, covering topics from Israel, pension reform, the Keystone XL pipeline and the legalization of marijuana.  On Israel, the question asked him to go in depth on his past statements supporting Israel.  Members of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East were handing out a leaflet accusing Mr Mulcair of not supporting the NDP’s policy in regards to Israel and Palestine.  Mr Mulcair, however, provided a strong and even spirited defence of the NDP’s Middle East policy.   He also spoke prominently about returning Canada’s foreign policy its more traditional approach and away from the Conservatives’ aggressive and pointless posturing.

On the Keystone XL pipeline, he tackled the issue from all fronts, not just the obvious environmental issues.  In particular he discussed the issues of energy security and the exporting of jobs that comes with these pipeline projects.  I was also personally glad that he didn’t take the offered bait to do some Alberta bashing, which is far too fashionable among progressives.   Lots of Albertans are progressives and we resent being lumped in with the oil industry.

It wouldn’t be Vancouver without a discussion of the legalization of marijuana and his stand on it.  The issue is brought up a vaguely incoherent younger fellow who is obviously a stoner.  Mr Mulcair’s response is a classic political dodge, talking about the party’s lack of position on the topic, and some vaguely worded health concerns about marijuana.  He then suggests not just a study or a committee, but a full flown Royal Commission on the question of marijuana legalization.  I want to sit in on that Royal Commission as I suspect it would contain considerable entertainment value.   Mr Mulcair is at least up front about acknowledging this as a classic political dodge.

The First NDP Prime Minister?

There’s a lot about Mr Mulcair to like as a candidate, as a leader, as a potential Prime Minister.  On a completely superficial level, he looks and acts a lot like the classic image of a Canadian Prime Minister.  He has that “Prime Ministerial” bearing.  It’s unfortunate thought that such an image is still limited to boring white anglophones and francophones.  Nonetheless, I find him to be engaging and forthright, certainly different from my past (limited) experience with politicians.   He’s definitely got a good grasp of the issues and seems to enjoy this kind of engagement.

That being said, it should be noted there is a slight prickliness to his personality, flashes of irritation, perhaps most noted when a questioner on the subject of marijuana suggested he was hypocrite.  This has been noted by the media in the past, but from what was demonstrated I don’t see this as a down side.  Frankly, it makes him seem more human than some of the other politicians I’ve seen smile their way through unfair characterizations.  Anger can only carry a candidate so far, but a lack thereof diminishes a candidate as well.  Mitt Romney is providing an excellent demonstration of the difficulties in getting elected, when the candidate is an android with the dial stuck on “congenial.”

I found however his unwillingness to discuss broader cooperation across partisan lines to be frustrating as I feel this is a key issue, particularly in attracting the youth vote.  Given his demonstrated enthusiasm for the youth vote, this is an area that will hold him back in bringing this segment into the NDP.    Certainly the party’s past support for electoral reform is a major draw for myself and for other young voters.  A lot of Green voters have ‘lent’ the NDP their votes in the hopes that electoral reform may one day allow their voices to be heard in Parliament.  This anti-cooperation stand creates the impression that the NDP is seeking only to supplant the Liberals and take their previous role, rather than genuinely reforming our institutions.  The key to the NDP’s credibility with youth is their desire to reform the system, to make it more inclusive and part of that is changing the way all parties interact with each other.

Despite that, I found his desire to broaden the NDP’s base and make the party more attractive to a wider audience to be the right tone for an NDP leader.  While the party’s core values are important, those values won’t make any substantive difference if the party can’t take power.  Reaching out to more voters is absolutely essential and effectively communicating those values and offering something to the people who may not share all or most of them is essential.   While he has a major focus on expanding the party’s support in Quebec, success there could build the experience to expand the party’s reach in Western Canada, another much needed growth area.  British Columbia is prime territory for new NDP seats and if Mr Mulcair becomes the NDP leader, he could position himself well to expand the NDP in BC, particularly after the next provincial election.

On another key area, he also spoke intelligently about the need for a methodical approach to taking government, about building the party over the next 2 years and then a year long run up to the election.  He also stressed the importance of building up the policy side of the NDP, connecting that with his own past experience as a provincial minister.  He seems to have taken to heart some of the lessons of Stephen Harper’s rise to power.  The NDP has a lot to learn from that, for Stephen Harper has shown the path for an effectively new political party to form a government in this country.  The next NDP leader will be in a similar position to where Mr Harper was immediately after taking the leadership of the Canadian Alliance.

Another interesting note, during the entire Town Hall he only said the word “Conservatives” perhaps 2 or 3 times by my count.  Otherwise he always referred to Stephen Harper by name or the Harper Government as the NDP’s adversary.  A conscious rhetorical choice or simply his manner of speaking?  Either way, it seems to reduce the role of the Conservative party (and by extension its supporters) as the adversary and speak more to the need to defeat Stephen Harper.  It’s a clear reflection (conscious or otherwise) of just how polarizing Mr Harper is and how personal this battle is becoming.

I’m still undecided on whom I will support for the NDP leadership.  Going to this Town Hall though was very informative and gave me a lot to think about on the subject.  I disagree with Mr Mulcair on several key issues but he is still a compelling candidate for the leadership.  Reaching out and building up the Quebec base is extremely important.  The NDP’s electoral success in devastating the Bloc Quebecois may have done more for national unity then most Federal governments have been able to accomplish on that file since the 1990s.  And Mr Mulcair was a big part of that.

I can definitely say this much though: if Mr Mulcair wins the leadership I will wholeheartedly support him and the NDP going into the next election.  He’s definitely Prime Minister material and I think he’s on the right track on a lot of issues.  Even if he doesn’t come around on the questions of cooperation, I believe he is capable of leading this party to government.

The Town Hall Experience

This was the first time I had attended an event of this type and I have to say I enjoyed it.  It was a diverse group of people that came out and it was interesting to watch some of the folks who were there to grind their particular axes.  This being BC, the only topic that was directly questioned more than once was marijuana legalization.  While I personally agree with legalization (even though I find marijuana to be repellent) its not top of my list of legislative priorities.  Nor is the Israel/Palestine issue my top priority in selecting a party or candidate, beyond ensuring that Canada returns to its more traditional foreign policy and away from the Conservatives’ habit of using foreign policy to feed red meat to its base.  As such, when attendees are bringing up these issues I found I was more engaged in how the questioner and Mr Mulcair handled themselves rather then the actual content.

I also enjoyed tweeting my thoughts on the Mulcair Town Hall to my small number of followers last night.  It was a fun and educational experience that I have learned from.  The first and most important lesson is: don’t try to keep up.  Only send the most important thoughts and observations.  And work on increasing my smart phone typing (thumbing?) speed?

The biggest issue I had with the event was the persistent troubles with the sound system.  They didn’t seem to have done any testing before hand and the volume was far too high, causing an echo.  As well there was persistent feedback problems as well.  I’m more sensitive then most to high frequency noise, but when others around me are wincing, I know that its really out of whack.  Migraines are not conducive to political participation.

My biggest regret of the evening was that I was unable to stay and actually shake Mr Mulcair’s hand as I had another engagement.  Other than that it was a terrific experience and I look forward to attending future NDP events.  The Town Hall has reconfirmed to me that I am in the right political party.

Given that my readership currently consists of my best friend, my non-political friend (who always votes for those ‘orange guys’), my Mom and the odd man who lives down the hall (yes Jim, I will pick up your mail) I am not expecting much if any feedback on this.  Everyone knows the last thing the world needs is another politics blog.

But I am enjoying the tweeting and the attending and the talking. This blog serves as a good compliment to all of those other things and I enjoy it for that reason.  Even if I only get the occasional look from my Mom and others, I’ll be content because this helps inform my own interactions with the wider world through those other avenues.

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