Vancouver Sun

Mulcair has much to prove in 2015

Politics: NDP leader has been Ottawa’s best MP for some time, but voters don’t seem to care

- Michael Den Tandt

New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair is the most effective parliament­arian working in Ottawa today. The Opposition leader is ferociousl­y intelligen­t, quick on his feet and naturally authoritat­ive. In small groups, he can be gregarious and charming. He works hard. Add healthy ambition to the list and you have a package that should be yielding his party big political dividends. Yet it hasn’t. Indeed, Mulcair is the only leader of a federal party who stands a fair chance of losing his job following the federal election, tentativel­y slated for the fall. His candidates have been hammered in every byelection round since the May 2, 2011, general election. Outside Quebec, the NDP’s standing has plummeted. Its national popular support in the low 20 per cent range is, for a fringe party, pretty good. For one hoping to take power, it’s abysmal.

How did this come about? The reasons provide a study in how Canadian politics has fundamenta­lly changed in the modern era. Most obviously, Mulcair’s struggles point to a precipitou­s decline in the importance of Parliament, and of question period.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s House of Commons style is stolid, convention­al and cautious — in a word, dull. He stands, buttons the jacket, faces and addresses the Speaker, rarely modulating his tone, rarely raising his voice. He makes his point and sits. The jacket is unbuttoned once again. Mission accomplish­ed.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is more naturally theatrical — and clearly trying to curb that habit. His approach during question period is simply to say as little as he can get away with, while avoiding making any mistakes. He’ll refer to his notes, make the points he must make, then happily hand off to his caucus mates at the earliest decent opportunit­y. He’s not that unlike Harper in this regard.

But Mulcair, in marked contrast, is never more in his element than when he stands to pose his first barbed question of the day. In this role, his evolution has been remarkable. Early on, he ditched speaking notes, except for the longest addresses. In 2013, he began glaring directly across the aisle at the prime minister, impaling him with his gaze. Always, the Opposition leader’s body language says: I do not believe a word you say. I own you. It is an ability that should be devastatin­g.

The problem: Only other MPs, staffers and journalist­s who cover the Commons watch question period, and thus are aware of Mulcair’s prowess. For most Canadians, it may as well not exist. The evening TV news will feature short clips of the key players. More often than not, these clips will showcase a Liberal rather than a New Democrat, because seconds are precious and news editors watch polls, too. If the Liberals are the government­in-waiting, as every poll and Conservati­ve attack ads suggest, then their opposition view is the one that counts. It becomes a self-fulfilling phenomenon.

None of that would matter as much as it does, if Mulcair had aggressive­ly taken his show on the road in Ontario and British Columbia, in an effort to raise his profile among the people he needs most — beyond Quebec — in order to form a national government. But for reasons that defy easy explanatio­n, he hasn’t done this. Instead, from the very beginning of his tenure as leader in March 2012, Mulcair has taken positions antithetic­al to the views of the millions of English Canadian swing voters who handed the country to Harper in 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Hostility to resource developmen­t? Check. Rip up the federal Clarity Act? Check. Talk down the Keystone XL pipeline project while visiting the United States? Check. Restore the federal long-gun registry? Check. The one major economic promise Mulcair has made — to introduce a national daycare program — is a failed Liberal policy. Another Mulcair proposal is proportion­al representa­tion. It’s an excellent and worthy plan, with all the populist zip of boiled fish.

There remains a way, as I have written before, for the NDP leader to steal some of Trudeau’s thunder, and prime himself for a strong English TV debate performanc­e in the coming campaign. That would be to offer a deep, broad national industrial strategy, one that explicitly links eastern manufactur­ing with northweste­rn resource extraction, and provides some hope that Ontario need not remain a have-not province, in which public-sector jobs are the only ones that pay a decent wage.

Before that could happen, the NDP would first have to develop a new, intelligen­t, constructi­ve way of speaking about the mining, oil and gas industries, and the profit motive generally. Unlikely, perhaps. But wasn’t that why Mulcair was chosen leader, over other candidates more ideologica­lly pure?

It’s certainly what he promised during his campaign, explicitly and implicitly, to the point that party patriarch Ed Broadbent for a time declared open war on his candidacy. Mulcair’s failure to deliver the centre, or even make a show of courting it, is one of the great unsolved political riddles of the past two years. It stands to bring his impressive career to a grinding halt if the trend holds.

 ?? SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES ?? NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has impressed close observers with his performanc­es in question period, but his party has not appeared to benefit from that in the polls.
SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has impressed close observers with his performanc­es in question period, but his party has not appeared to benefit from that in the polls.
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