It was an agreeable affair.
There was energy, a packed room and loads of enthusiasm Sunday in Ottawa as the New Democrats gathered to hear the party’s four leadership candidates make their case to replace current leader Tom Mulcair.
But disagreement was in short supply as MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron and Peter Julian laid out what needs to be fixed in Canada and why the NDP is the party to fix it. Social justice, the environment and income inequality were the main themes.
One thing was clear — no matter who takes over, the party will be making a shift to the left, with another theme being the need to bring grassroots organizations into the party and attract more minority votes in the 2019 election.
The race has picked up since mid-February when B.C.’s Julian became the first candidate to enter the race, casting himself as the NDP’s version of U.S. Democrat hopeful Bernie Sanders.
Julian predicted that energy policy will be one of the issues setting himself apart from the other candidates. He firmly opposes building energy infrastructure for fossil fuels.
But even on the energy issue, Sunday’s debate brought few differences and little conflict between candidates.
Asked about the differences between the Liberals and the NDP, Angus said, “In tough times, the NDP, they’ve got your back.”
Ashton used the question to address the party’s disappointing 2015 election result. The NDP initially led in the polls only to be returned to third-party status after being leapfrogged by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
The Manitoba MP blamed the party for not sticking to its left-wing roots and said it needs to become more involved with grassroots movements.
“We played it too safe, we let the liberals out-left us,” Ashton said. “We have to learn from that and recognize that the way to inspire people is by being who we are.”
Last election saw a boost in youth and Indigenous voters, but they didn’t vote for the NDP, Ashton said, calling for a bold vision for the party.
Other candidates agreed.
After the debate Julian acknowledged the consensus on stage, much different from the crowded Conservative leadership race, which has featured personal attacks and spirited arguing during debates.
“It was probably no surprise to any of you we had more in agreement than disagreement, but I think our leadership process is well started,” said to reporters.
Quebec MP Caron said though the audience saw a lot of agreement among the candidates, there are in fact significant differences that will become clearer as the race continues.
“We all agree on what needs to be done, where differences will come is how we get there,” he told reporters. “We will be not only the conscience of Parliament but also the political power.”