Our federal leaders are ghosts of premiers past

Paul Wells on why Tom Mulcair sounds a lot like Jean Charest
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to party caucus members on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, ON Wednesday September 19, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Fred Chartrand/CP

Turns out the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is some guy named Tom Mulcair, and apparently his “New Democratic Party” has nearly three times as many MPs as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Who knew? You can read all about the NDP leader in the new Maclean’s ebook, Justin!: Justin Justin Trudeau Trudeau Trudeau. We’re sure there’s something about old what’s-his-name in there somewhere.

My press gallery colleagues were reminded of Mulcair’s existence this week when the NDP leader denounced the Supreme Court’s cursory investigation into its own behaviour 33 years ago. A new book by a Quebec historian, Frédéric Bastien, quotes archival documents from the United Kingdom to assert that two former Supremes, then-chief justice Bora Laskin and his colleague Willard Estey, discussed the Constitution’s repatriation with Canadian and British officials in 1980. Bastien sees this as proof of collusion across the wall that should separate judges from legislators, and therefore as proof that Canada’s Constitution is illegitimate. He notes that the paperwork he received from Canada’s government was heavily edited. More proof!

In reality, the top court’s patriation reference opinion did not say what Pierre Trudeau wanted it to say. If Laskin and Trudeau were conspiring, they were really bad at it. But details like that are not enough to shake off a dedicated conspiracy theorist.

The top court announced it would look into the matter. Several days later the Supremes announced they’d come up with nothing. Mulcair was unamused. “It’s a clear indication that the Supreme Court had no intention of ever dealing with this issue seriously,” he said. “The first thing that one would have expected the Supreme Court to do is to ask for the full version” of the ancient government documents Bastien received in redacted form, “read them, and start an investigation.”

“Mulcair’s Supreme Court gambit is a Bloc Québécois move,” Jonathan Kay wrote in the National Post. “What kind of ‘federalist’ intentionally stokes up obsolete, three-decade-old Québécois grievances?”

Kay’s been away from Montreal too long. What kind of federalist sides with the Bloc Québécois on pointless grievances? In Quebec the answer is, “All the federalists.”

It is neither fair to Mulcair nor analytically useful to equate him with the Bloc Québécois. It is closer to the truth to say he never really left the Quebec Liberal party. He used to serve as a cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s provincial government, and while he quit that job in a huff, to know how Mulcair will react on a given issue it is still usually enough to ask how Charest would react in his place.

Mulcair is suspicious of Alberta oil, except insofar as it can be coaxed eastward through Quebec. He is worried about central Canadian manufacturing decline. He is comfortable with higher taxes than most Canadians have lately been paying. He is sensitive to insults in a narrow spectrum of frequencies only Le Devoir editorialists can hear. It is true that Charest’s heart beats well to the right of most New Democrats’—but since Mulcair’s own heart cannot be located by search teams with bloodhounds, the distinction is trivial.

You might argue that a narrow provincial focus is improper for a leader of a national party, but Mulcair-Charest has company. Ralph Klein’s death in March has helped reinforce the impression that Stephen Harper is governing the country much as Klein would have, if the late Alberta premier had found himself teleported to Ottawa.

Last year Harper called Calgary “the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.” He views petroleum exports as the best card in Canada’s economic hand and regards any government-imposed price on carbon as a menace. He botched his attempt to speed the Northern Gateway pipeline’s passage west because it never occurred to him that British Columbia is this whole other province. Last month he told the National Health Council its funding won’t be renewed after the organization turns 10. Klein walked out of the 2003 Ottawa meeting where Jean Chrétien created the health council, calling it federal interference in provinces’ business. Harper is implementing Klein’s revenge. As a bonus he holds as many first-ministers’ meetings in a year as Klein would have: zero.

But surely one leader has a truly national vision? Nope. Don’t think of Justin Trudeau as his father’s son. Squint a little and you’ll see him as the post-retirement reincarnation of Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty. Trudeau’s leadership campaign was run by old Queen’s Park hands like Katie Telford and Gerald Butts. His manner is the same shucks-golly mien Ontario’s Premier Dad affected. Trudeau shot his first campaign ad in that bastion of provincial jurisdiction, a middle-school classroom. In the 2003 campaign, McGuinty signed a gimmicky—and, in the end, wholly bogus—pledge not to raise taxes. Trudeau has hinted in interviews he’ll make a comparable pledge.

The 2003 campaign, of course, was McGuinty’s second. He lost in 1999. He told federal Liberals at their 2012 convention they should seek a leader young enough to live with disappointment for a few years. Liberals tend to forget that part of his speech. Nobody handicapping the 2015 elections should.

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