There are many who saluted Romeo Saganash’s candidacy for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party as historic. That it was, as we can say now in the past tense: Saganash ended his leadership bid February 9 after political and financial realities caught up to a campaign that won national attention but little firm support.
Nonetheless, Saganash did himself and the people of Eeyou Istchee proud with his courage to run and by running a serious and credible campaign. Many observers and fellow New Democrats enthusiastically congratulated his decision last fall to enter the race to replace the late Jack Layton… even as they just as determinedly chose to support other candidates when the party elects a new leader March 24.
It may be a bit hard to believe in 2012 that Romeo was the first-ever Aboriginal candidate for the leadership of a national political party in Canada. For a non-Native like myself who happens to support the party he wanted to lead, it’s an encouraging step, if late in coming. I hope the disappointing levels of support he attracted more reflect his status as a rookie MP with relatively shallow roots in the NDP.
The nagging suspicion that a First Nations politician faces a steeper uphill struggle to win serious consideration as a national political leader and potential prime minister can’t be discounted, sadly. Yet, even if this might have been a factor in Canada’s political matrix of 2012, Romeo’s audacity wasn’t wasted. He succeeded in raising his profile, both in the party and nationally. And that may have been the immediate goal; though every candidate will always say publicly they’re in the race to win regardless of their actual chances.
A few years down the road, after Saganash proves he can be re-elected in his sprawling riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou, and after he possibly serves as a cabinet minister in a future NDP government, the odds might tilt much more favourably. In the meantime, he has plenty of time to review what he did right, what he did wrong, and what he can do to prepare for the next time the party is again looking for a leader.
Which brings me, briefly, to the seven remaining candidates. That number is down from nine, mercifully, as the unilingual Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm previously grasped the basic political reality that a potential prime minister must have at least a basic command of both Canada’s official languages (and, we might add, should maybe mutter “meegwetch” or “wachiya” occasionally to acknowledge the tongues that preceded English and French in this land). Anyway, I’d like the number of candidates to shrink even further, at least to a more-manageable and credible five with at least a theoretical chance of winning.
As attractive as they may be to their small but hardy bands of diehard supporters, for instance, Niki Ashton and Martin Singh don’t have the slightest hope of making a dent in this race and should also withdraw to enable a more focused contrast between the top-tier candidates.
If nothing else, this would allow us to hear the remaining five at greater length. Debate formats with a plethora of no-hopers is a contributing sedative to the snooze factor that has characterized much of this long campaign – and, likely, to the recent slide in polling numbers for the NDP.
This is important. We need to hear from the candidates in much greater detail. And the leadership contest must do more to grab the attention of the public, and not just party insiders. One way to do that is to separate the serious from the lightweights. In this age of notoriously short attention spans, there is an increasing tendency to speak in political shorthand – an insider code – to get easy nods and applause from niche groups familiar with the jargon. Indeed, “shorthand” may too kind an adjective: Twitter and FB status updates are helping reduce discussions and debate to a simple regurgitation of hot-button terms.
That’s the impression I had of a couple candidates during an informal leadership debate in Montreal a few weeks ago. Niki Ashton was particularly underwhelming in this regard. Simply uttering a string of key words – Housing! Youth! Progressive! New! – does not constitute a policy platform. Nor does it tell us anything at all about her relationship to any of these adjectives and common nouns. (Ottawa MP Paul Dewar was not much better in this regard.)
At worst, it’s the equivalent of listening to a Tea Party extremist from the US scream Gays! Mexicans! Obamacare! Freedom! It’s an easy way to excite their fellow travellers in the torch-and-pitchfork crowd.
The NDP must do much better. There is now a historic opportunity to overcome the built-in handicaps of our political system that inherently favour the powerful in our society. As the government-in-waiting, the party can’t afford a leader who will need time to learn on the job, a luxury that Jack Layton enjoyed (and certainly made the most of, to his credit). These are themes I’ll return to in greater detail before March 24.
In the meantime, I’d like to take a light-hearted moment to make a plea for a sense of rhythm in the next great hope of Canada’s progressives. I can personally attest that this is something that should serve Romeo Saganash rather well in his future political career.
I attended the triumphant and at times giddy NDP convention in Vancouver last June shortly after the incredible election campaign that elevated the party to official opposition status. And I must say that I was inspired by Romeo’s ability to trip the light fantastic. Perhaps in part because of the young, eye-catching members he attracted to the dance-floor during a late-night party in the city’s stunning harbour-side convention centre. But there it is: sex appeal and a sense of rhythm can be important political assets. To intentionally misquote anarchist Emma Goldman, “If he can’t dance, I don’t want him leading the revolution!”