Saturday, January 19, 2013

#skndpldr - Rosetown Debate Notes

As Scott has already noted, the first Saskatchewan NDP leadership forum of 2013 saw plenty of familiar themes - particularly in the prepared speeches and the audience questions. But the candidate questions took a couple of interesting turns.

The first candidate question went to Weir, and he used both of his questioning slots to a similar effect - in each case challenging one of his fellow candidates to make a principled case for a policy position. And the strategy seemed to catch the respondents somewhat off guard: Ryan Meili offered an effective first answer on reproductive rights generally but missed an obvious opportunity on his follow-up to link abortion choice in particular to social health outcomes, while Trent Wotherspoon sidestepped an invitation to make a case either for or against anti-scab legislation.

Now, I still think there's plenty of room for Weir himself to expand on the principled basis for his own proposals. But his challenge to other candidates to better explain the philosophy behind their policy choices looks like a highly valuable addition to the debate - and should help ensure that any eventual leader is better prepared to deal with the level of scrutiny that comes with a leadership role.

Meili followed Weir's initial question with another noteworthy offering, questioning Weir as to which of his platform planks would have to give way if expected revenue increases didn't materialize. Weir avoided the question by noting that his assumptions are modest enough to allow his entire platform to stand even if the economy does turn downward, but the overall message looks to be an important one: any leader or premier will have to prioritize, and voters seeking to evaluate potential leaders will be best served knowing how candidates will carry out that task even among the policies they support.

The most striking development of the Rosetown debate came in Trent Wotherspoon's first round of questioning. I've commented several times before about Wotherspoon's softball questions toward his competitors - and his first open query to Cam Broten about foreign ownership of farmland had a relatively similar feel to it, leading to Broten's characteristic on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answer.

But this time, Wotherspoon's followup did far more than merely allow for further discussion at the respondent's leisure. Instead, Wotherspoon staked out a strong position on the initial question, pointing out that one of Broten's options might be taken to involve the violation of existing law against foreign ownership. And the result was to force Broten to backtrack from his original response and acknowledge his agreement with Wotherspoon's position.

The exchange was interesting enough as an example of a broader point as to the dangers of equivocation: some questions call for a strong answer, and a candidate can get in serious trouble by developing the habit of refusing to provide them. But it also suggests Wotherspoon is sharpening his skills in challenging his competitors after avoiding confrontation for the first half of the campaign. And while he likely won't catch anybody off guard quite as easily in the debates to come, it's a significant plus to see that change.

Finally, the more interesting question from Broten was his second one. Once again, he zeroed in on one of Meili's policy proposals, this time asking for specifics about a Bank of Saskatchewan. But Broten ran into trouble by equating a provincial structure with the obviously different purpose and structure of the Bank of Canada - leaving Meili all kinds of room to respond by pointing (as he has in the past) to North Dakota's example as to how a public bank can serve useful purposes without either setting broader monetary policy or harming the business of other financial institutions.

Again, the balance of the debate ran largely along the tracks set before the holiday break, subject to some development in Meili's speaking style and Broten's focus on the reform of party structures. But it still offered some hint of differences in strategy and execution as the campaign shifts to the home stretch - and the candidates figure to be put to a better test as leaders if the new developments continue.


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