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2012 Leadership Races: Who Will Carry the Torch?

Leadership races are happening in the U.S. and Canada and for most voters and partisans, while winning elections are important, it is also about what kind of policies will be implemented. Most people want to support more than just a political party; they want to support a movement based on clear values.

In politics, 2012 is going to be a year marked by leadership races, from Republicans in the U.S. choosing a presidential nominee, to the NDP in Canada picking a successor to Jack Layton who can credibly claim to be (potentially) the next prime minister, and the New Brunswick Liberals selecting the leader who will carry their banner in 2014.

Leadership races are often pivotal moments for a political party, choosing the party's leading public face. Also, a leadership race is a time when members determine and explore what the true values of their party are.

Pierre Trudeau's election as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968, for example, set the tone of the party in the coming decades -- both during and after his tenure as Prime Minister -- with themes of the just society, bilingualism, multiculturalism, and a commitment to national unity with a strong federal government being entrenched as central tenants of Liberalism.

Leadership races -- in many if not all cases -- can be unpredictable, with long-shot candidates becoming front-runners and perceived front-runners failing to gain popular support despite having a well-funded political machine.

For the federal New Democrats, Brian Topp seemed the early front-runner, the backroom operative of Jack Layton who was his natural successor, who even seemed -- at the outset -- someone who would win in a virtual coronation. Topp had big names in the party backing him, including former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, deputy NDP leader Libby Davies, and former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow.

Topp's endorsements spanned the ideological spectrum in the New Democratic Party, with Davies as a leading voice of the party's activist left, and Roy Romanow representing the centrist third-way wing.

However, despite a long list of MPs and big names endorsing him, Topp has faltered in retail politics, and now seems less a front-runner with candidates such as Thomas Mulcair and Peggy Nash, who have defined themselves clearly on policy and values, appearing to have momentum and support of the party membership.

In the United States, Mitt Romney has had a well-funded political machine, essentially having campaigned for President since 2007. He has powerful establishment backers including George H.W. Bush and John McCain. However, Romney has not been able to seal the deal. In Iowa, despite the money and years of campaigning, he finished at 25 per cent barely winning over a candidate with minimal funding.

Romney, coming from a patrician background, appears out of touch with voters, and seems to lack sincerity of conviction having changed his position on fundamental issues such as universal healthcare -- supporting it as Governor of Massachusetts and now opposing it -- and abortion, going from pro-choice to pro-life.

Across the political spectrum, voters and partisans are drawn to candidates who stand for clear values and principles, who make an election about about a clear set of values rather than just careerism and ego. This is true of candidates like Pierre Trudeau and Barack Obama on the centre-left and Ronald Reagan on the right.

In New Brunswick, in the early days and weeks of 2012, the provincial Liberal leadership race is ramping up with Mike Murphy -- the former Minister of Health -- declaring his candidacy at a formal venue in Moncton after expressing, several times during the last year, his intention to run for leader.

Murphy is likely to be a formidable candidate in organization and money. His campaign launch could -- at this early stage -- list a sizeable list of MLAs and MPs backing him.

However, this leadership race is likely to be determined by more than who has the most well-financed political machine. Values and principles are likely to play a central role. The Liberal party's discussion paper preceding the 2011 renewal convention emphasized the problem, in the last election, of the party not standing for clear and consistent values, of lurching to the right in advocating a flattened income tax rate while pursuing progressive policies such as the anti-poverty agenda.

Liberals will most likely want a leader and party representing clear and consistent principles. As a centre/centre-left party, core Liberal values would involve working towards a more equitable society, one that provides help to the poor and vulnerable, social policies to help the middle class, while working towards a competitive economy with entrepreneurship and innovation as central tenants while not disproportionately providing handouts -- through steep tax cuts or grants -- to the wealthy.

Kelly Lamrock, who is actively exploring a run for the leadership and who would be Murphy's chief rival has -- through social media and appearances at Liberal party events -- advocated for a return to the Liberal Party's core progressive values.

While Mike Murphy has put forward some progressive policies, for example on environmental conservation, he also advocates the right-wing policy of reducing government by 20 per cent -- a policy that would make it difficult to maintain programs that help the poor, to maintain a public and universal system of healthcare, and would likely constitute a disinvestment in education which is key for establishing upward mobility and a competitive 21st-century workforce.

Such an inconsistent stand on policy could prove contentious in winning the party's grassroots. For most voters and partisans, while winning elections are important, it is also about what will happen after the election victory -- what kind of policies will be implemented. Most people want to support more than just a political party, they want to support a movement based on clear values and consistent principles.

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