Can Brian Topp do it .. just how much of a transformation in Canadian federal politics is underway anyway?

Sep 13th, 2011 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

“Can Lloyd George Do It?” is the title of a 1929 tract by John Maynard Keynes and Hubert Douglas Henderson on the economic policy of the fading British Liberal Party of the day.

(As the Duke University economist E. Roy Weintraub put it a few years ago, in commenting on a New York Times column by Paul Krugman: “Keynes [with Henderson] in ‘Can Lloyd George Do It?’ in 1929 laid out all that we need to do now with respect to economic policy. The theorization of it all in 1936 may have helped convince Keynes’s ‘fellow economists’ … but practical people understood correctly that unemployment benefits, and public works transportation, housing, etc. would create jobs quickly.”)

In the culturally more modest but geographically much vaster Canada of today a similar question arose as we watched Brian Topp announce his candidacy for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, in Ottawa on Monday, September 12, 2011 – backed up by former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, and “well-respected Gatineau, Que., MP Francoise Boivin, who decided to support Topp rather than run herself.”

Mr. Topp is the current party president (a job he will shortly be stepping down from). He was born and raised in Quebec, and is fluently bilingual. He worked for the former NDP provincial premier of Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow. He was very close to the late Jack Layton, and is credited with much of the success Mr. Layton’s NDP has enjoyed – culminating with this year’s rise to official opposition status (thanks to the big surprise package from the people of Quebec).

The next federal NDP leader certainly has to be able to pick up the ball that the people of Quebec have thrown to the party with some panache. And as Le Devoir has explained: “Brian Topp sera candidat à la succession de Jack Layton comme chef du NPD … Bilingue, le candidat a mis l’accent à la fois sur ses origines québécoises et sa mère francophone pour séduire le Québec, et aussi sur son père anglophone et le fait d’avoir vécu dans plusieurs des grandes villes canadiennes pour rallier aussi le reste du pays.”

At the same time, Mr. Topp’s Romanow connection in Saskatchewan also gives him some robust ties to the rising regions of Western Canada. A headline in the Vancouver Sun has picked up this side of things: ‘Establishment candidate’ Topp to unveil western strategy for NDP in Vancouver.”

This particular article went on to quickly summarize a lot of what we feel ourselves: “Topp, according to [BC NDP MP Nathan] Cullen, is ‘certainly . . . the establishment candidate … He’s going to have a big chunk of the hierarchy of the NDP behind him. That doesn’t surprise me. For all those years of being in the backrooms, if he did it at all well that’s how it’s going to be. And he did it very well. He’s just a great strategist, a great backroom guy’… But Topp, who has never been an elected politician, has some things to prove, according to Cullen … ‘Where Brian is going to have to show himself is his ability to ignite a room, to light up the crowds and really motivate people with his vision.’”

As noted in other places, we remain a bit sceptical about the federal New Democrats and their new mission. Brian Topp has played constructive roles in past NDP negotiations with the Liberals. But he also seems to us someone who has recurrently pressed NDP-Liberal conflict strategies that have divided the progressive side of the political spectrum, and almost certainly helped Stephen Harper get where he is today, in some degree at least. Even so, we did feel a certain sense of fresh plausibility and excitement in Brian Topp’s announcement in Ottawa on Monday, September 12. Our current very strong guess is that the next progressive federal government in Canada will involve some form of co-operation between New Democrats and Liberals. But someone is going to have to lead even such a co-operative attack on the new Stephen Harper retrogressive Conservative fortress. And now we do find ourselves wondering: “Can Brian Topp do it? “ Whatever else, as matters stand, it seems an interesting question.

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