NDP leadership candidates clash over pipelines and policy during N.L. debate

Apparently buoyed by the recent gains of the British Labour Party, the five candidates hoping to lead the federal NDP gathered in St. John's on Sunday for a debate that saw the contenders testing each other's policies and one quizzed on his political future.

Contenders to replace Tom Mulcair tout recent success of Britain's Labour party

B.C. MP Peter Julian, Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, and Quebec MP Guy Caron are running to lead the NDP. (CBC)

Apparently buoyed by the recent gains of the British Labour Party, the five candidates hoping to lead the federal NDP gathered in St. John's on Sunday for a debate that saw the contenders testing each other's policies and one quizzed on his political future.

The field of candidates to succeed Tom Mulcair is currently a quintet of Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Quebec MP Guy Caron and B.C. MP Peter Julian. Pat Stogran, the former veterans' ombudsman, dropped out of the race earlier this month.

Though Singh, a young, well-dressed and social-media savvy upstart from Brampton, Ont., has generated a good deal of buzz, the race is still taking shape. Party members will pick a new leader in the fall through a preferential, ranked ballot system.

Sunday's debate touched on familiar themes such as climate change and income inequality, but also highlighted various differences within and beyond those shared priorities.

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Singh touted a new plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Canadians and reform income supports for others. Caron used his opening statement to challenge Angus, Ashton and Julian to explain their policies, and asked Singh whether he would remain with the federal NDP regardless of this fall's leadership result.

Speaking just days after the Liberal government made a series of high-profile announcements about international affairs, national defence and foreign aid, the NDP candidates took turns questioning the Liberal approach.

Julian, Ashton and Singh argued that new spending on the military could be put to better use on other priorities. Caron and Singh said the federal government was not acting with sufficient independence from Donald Trump's administration. Julian said not enough money was being committed to foreign aid.

The NDP's pipeline politics

Candidates were given the opportunity to directly question each other and this led to several clashes, even if the tone remained generally civil.

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Angus and Ashton challenged the basis for Caron's basic-income proposal. Angus later questioned how Julian and Ashton would implement their proposals to eliminate tuition fees.

Both Julian and Ashton pursued Singh on the question of Kinder Morgan's proposal for the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. The issue of pipelines stands a significant point of contention between New Democrats in Alberta, where the party is in government, and party members in other provinces.

"Our federal caucus is opposed and I believe that we can't sit on the sidelines when it comes to such an important issue," Ashton said.

Singh said he would be releasing a plan on climate change and pipelines soon and wanted to speak to NDP leaders in Alberta and British Columbia before announcing anything.

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"I will be releasing my response to Kinder Morgan as well as a climate change plan very shortly," he said. "But I can say that I believe as a leader we need to find ways to bring people together and we need to make sure that we speak to all people impacted, so I'll be reaching out to Alberta and to now the new government that's going to be formed in B.C. before I make this announcement."

Julian wasn't willing to wait.

"Kinder Morgan, in the recent B.C. election, was the major issue," he said. "Sixty per cent of British Columbians voted for parties that opposed Kinder Morgan. One accident on our coastline could wipe out the coast for a generation. Why have you not made up your mind on Kinder Morgan?"

Angus later pressed Singh about whether he would stay in Ontario or move to the federal NDP if he fails to win the leadership. When Singh didn't seem to answer the question directly, Angus interjected, leading to possibly the afternoon's testiest moment.

"It's not your turn, my friend," Singh said, holding up an index finger.

New Democrats see hope in Britain

In their opening statements, both Julian and Ashton touted the recent gains of the British Labour party and all candidates were later asked to explain what lessons they took from the election in the United Kingdom. Led by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party gained 29 seats in last week's vote.

"If you're bold and you're progressive, there's no question that people will support that," Singh said. "We need to do that. We can make that happen here in Canada as well."
The gains made by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, were heartening for the NDP. (Andrew Yates/Reuters)

Julian noted that Corbyn had also promised to eliminate tuition fees.

"The reaction from young voters was unprecedented," Julian said. "If that is not a clear example of the type of bold policies that will bring us to that type of support here in Canada, I don't know what there is."

Ashton said that, in addition to "bold policies," Corbyn gave voters "hope that things can be different. That we can stand up to corporate power. That we can stand up and say the word nationalization. That we can talk about stopping precarious work. And that's why people came out."

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Caron argued that both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator who similarly excited progressives last year, had not just offered bold proposals, but also explained how they would implement those policies.

Angus contrasted Corbyn's campaign with the approach that New Democrats have sometimes taken.

"There's a group in the New Democrats who always think if we're a little more careful and act more like Liberals we're going to win," he said. "And boy, what's our record on that, folks? It ain't all that good. Let's say what we're going to do and follow through."

There are four more debates scheduled in the race, including stops in Saskatoon, Victoria, Montreal and Vancouver.

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