NDP leadership hopefuls target Mulcair in second debate

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

NDP federal leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair, left, responds to a question during an NDP leadership debate in Halifax Sunday January 29, 2012. To Mulcair's left are fellow candidates Romeo Saganash, Martin Singh, Nathan Cullen, Niki Ashton, Peggy Nash, Brian Topp and Paul Dewar. This was the second of six travelling debates before a new party leader is chosen on March 24 at a party convention in Toronto. (TIM KROCHAK/THE CANADIAN PRESS/TIM KROCHAK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The second NDP leadership debate was a more spirited affair in which top contenders launched a series of attacks against the more centrist policies and approach of the party’s best known face in Quebec, Thomas Mulcair.

The eight New-Democrat candidates gathered in Halifax also engaged in a vigorous debate over a controversial plan by MP Nathan Cullen to encourage joint candidacies in the next election with the Liberal and Green parties in some Conservative-held ridings. Mr. Cullen was clearly isolated on the matter, but he appealed to members to support his project as the clearest way to an NDP victory in 2015.

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The NDP is well aware that the current race to find a successor to Jack Layton has been characterized in the media as long and dull. With a debate on Sunday that was focused on the issue of family policy, moderator Dan Leger urged the candidates to find “a precious ground of disagreement” during the 90-minute meeting.

The main target was Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his plans to reshape the Canadian pension system, but the candidates also started taking shots at one another, going especially hard against Mr. Mulcair who started his political career as a Liberal in Quebec City.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Mulcair was frequently attacked because he is doing well in the race, or whether it is because his adversaries want to highlight their left-wing credentials by going after him.

Long-time party organizer and strategist Brian Topp, who has won high-level endorsements early in the race, made it clear that he would raise taxes on the richest citizens in Canada, including increasing taxes on capital gains. While Mr. Mulcair said his tax plan will be released at a later date, he added that he does not want to change the capital gains tax system for people who have secondary homes, for example.

“We’ve got to give that a better look than just saying it as a slogan in a debate,” Mr. Mulcair said in a one-on-one exchange with Mr. Topp.

After the debate, Mr. Topp said that Canada’s tax system is blatantly unfair and that he will continue to encourage the party to move leftward and go after Bay St. millionaires.

“I think he is wrong,” Mr. Topp said about Mr. Mulcair’s views. “His answers show we have a bit of a disagreement here about the direction our party should go in.”

Mr. Mulcair, who is known for his fiery temperament among New Democrats in Ottawa, was clearly angry during the debate when Mr. Cullen referred to his Liberal origins.

“Nathan, give it up,” Mr. Mulcair said, adding that he joined the only major federalist party in Quebec at the start of his political career.

Mr. Mulcair also had to defend himself against allegations, raised by MP Paul Dewar, that he favoured bulk water exports. Mr. Mulcair sounded annoyed as he insisted that he “maintained restrictions” on these exports when he was the minister of the environment in Quebec.

“Come on Paul, I’ve always fought for the protection of our freshwater resources,” Mr. Mulcair said.

There was also much passion surrounding Mr. Cullen’s proposal to field joint progressive candidacies in the next election with the Liberals and the Greens.

“Nathan, with your plan, you would take away the democratic right of Canadians, in some cases, to vote for the party of their choice,” said MP Peggy Nash.

Mr. Mulcair also took on the issue, accusing Mr. Cullen of shooting “for the bronze medal.”

Mr. Cullen said that he hopes for the NDP to take power in 2015 and that he trusts New Democrat members to make the right decisions in each riding to ensure the defeat of Conservative MPs in the next election.

“I would allow the local New Democrats to decide if it is to our advantage and to the country’s advantage to hold joint nomination meetings between us and other parties,” Mr. Cullen said. “That’s my vision of leadership. I have faith in our people to make that decision and to win those elections.”

The next leadership debate will be held in two weeks in Quebec City, where the French-speaking ability of candidates like Mr. Dewar, who is still working to improve his fluency in his second language, will be put to the test.

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