Sunday, February 17, 2013

#skndpldr - Saskatoon Debate II Notes

The final official debate of Saskatchewan's NDP leadership campaign took place yesterday in Saskatoon - and since it was livestreamed, I'll offer some commentary on it for now, then link to the video when it's available.

In contrast to all of the debates since the Regina kick-off (the other debate which was live-streamed), yesterday's forum didn't feature any questions between the candidates. Instead, moderator Charles Smith was left to follow up each candidate's answer to audience questions - and while Smith took those in some interesting directions, he generally didn't challenge the candidates' initial answers or push for substantially deeper analysis of the issues involved.

That meant the candidates were able to stick to their chosen message tracks a bit more than usual. But the result wasn't a great change in their overall performances.

So what did manage to stand out during the course of the debate?

Cam Broten's most interesting contribution came in response to a follow-up question about the application of labour standards to small business. I've criticized Broten for equivocating in his answers to other questions earlier in the campaign, but his response to this particular challenge stood out as avoiding a similar danger: he noted that any employer will generally be more successful if it treats employees well, and thus made a case to ensure workers' rights are respected regardless of whether a small or large business is involved.

Another of Smith's more significant follow-up questions was to Ryan Meili as to how non-economic issues may affect the NDP in rural Saskatchewan. But Meili neatly answered by comparing the federal Cons' politics of division (particularly in trying to deny health care to refugees) to the opportunity available in recognizing common interests and looking to improve conditions for everybody, rather than seeking out minority groups for specific mistreatment.

Similarly, Erin Weir's response to the debate's first question about disabled residents and seniors living in poverty cut to the core of the right's political strategy. Weir noted that the Sask Party looks to divide the poor into "deserving" and "undeserving" categories while placing a higher priority on denying benefits to the latter rather than improving standards of living generally, and argued that the NDP's place should be to work on improving conditions for everybody before giving a couple of examples as to how to carry out that task. Unfortunately it may be a bit late in the leadership campaign to bring that distinction to the forefront as part of Weir's personal message - but I'll hope to hear plenty more from the party and the progressive community on point once the leadership campaign is over.

Finally, Trent Wotherspoon's response to a follow-up question on relationships with First Nations recognized the need to interact with grassroots members and leaders alike, and rejected Smith's effort to characterize First Nations relations as a rural issue rather than one which applies across the province.

Otherwise the debate followed fairly familiar lines - both in the areas of conflict (with Weir once again sparring with both Broten and Wotherspoon over the tax treatment of small business), and the many areas of broad agreement. And the final question asking candidates to identify points of distinction effectively offered an additional opportunity to reframe the contenders' scripted lines - but predictably didn't offer a lot of new material.

Of course, it's possible that the increasing crowd size meant there were enough new faces to make it worth the candidates' while to stick to what they perceive to be their strongest messages. But I wouldn't expect yesterday's debate to change a lot of minds among people who have followed the campaign throughout - and there may not be many more chances to do so among the pool of early voters which looks likely to determine at least the composition of the final ballot.

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