How Tom Mulcair plans to oppose Trudeau’s Liberals

Tom Mulcair on climate change, Syrian refugees, and staying on as NDP leader

NDP leader Tom Mulcair poses for photos with supporters while campaigning Tuesday, October 6, 2015 in Surrey, B.C. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

NDP leader Tom Mulcair poses for photos with supporters while campaigning Tuesday, October 6, 2015 in Surrey, B.C. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The plain, brutal truth for Tom Mulcair is that his NDP started the federal election campaign of 2015 leading in many polls and ended up, when the votes were counted on Oct. 19, in third place. As the year drew to a close, Mulcair spoke with Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes about that hard experience and the rebuilding effort ahead. A fuller version of the interview will be published in the weeks ahead, but here’s an excerpt of Mulcair talking about the challenges he faces when it comes to opposing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new government.

Q: I sense that it’s an awkward moment for your NDP. There’s a lot of goodwill surrounding the Trudeau government. There are early question marks, on issues like how quickly they are bringing refugees to Canada or whether their deficit promise is being broken. But there’s also this atmosphere of uplift and hopefulness, which I’m guessing you, on the progressive side of the spectrum, wouldn’t want to entirely lean against.

A: I think that’s very well said, but don’t forget: A change of tone has to be followed by a change of substance. For instance, on climate change, I was in Paris; I appreciated the change of tone. I did find it a little bit boastful to say “Canada is back,” equating the return of the Liberals with the return of Canada, but I did note there was a much more hopeful tone, much more helpful tone and I encourage that.

Last time the Liberals were in power they had one of the worst records in the world of greenhouse gas increases. When I saw Mr. Trudeau go to Paris I was very hopeful that that change of tone would translate into something. But then we started getting, “Give us a few months, we’re going to talk to the provinces.”

The only thing that will matter is in 2016 is, did Canada produce fewer greenhouse gases than we did in 2015? In 2017, will we produce fewer still again? We’ve seen nothing to lead Canadians to believe that. We’ll see what comes up after his 90 days. I’m hopeful, but I haven’t seen anything yet that gives me confidence that this is going to happen.

Your personal image is more wrapped up in the House than would be the case for most Canadian politicians, because you’re pretty effective in question period. But that was a style that you honed against Stephen Harper, who was a particular kind of adversary. Do you have any thoughts on how you might adjust your approach with Trudeau in the prime minister’s seat?

We are adjusting and we’re doing it by asking very specific questions. Mr. Trudeau stood beside Mayor Denis Coderre in Montreal at city hall, to use just one example, and he said, with no ifs, ands or buts, that he would be restoring home mail delivery.

That was a clear, rock-hard promise, and he’s starting to back away from it. All you have [to do is to] read the quote to him and then you ask him, “Did you say that?” I asked him that the other day, by the way—no rhetoric required in a question like that. Then when Mr. Trudeau started doing the back crawl, Canadians had all the information they needed.

There have been a lot of promises like that. You talk about the refugees. I’ll tell you straight up during the election campaign, before we made our commitment in the NDP to bringing in 10,000 before the end of the year, we talked to the top experts. We talked to the top academics. We looked at what the United Nations was asking of Canada. We talked to NGOs. They all said it’s extremely ambitious, but 10,000 is plausible between now and the end of the year.

The next day the Liberals held a press conference to attack us. What a bunch of chisellers. Ten thousand–we can do 25,000 by the end of the year! Barely a couple of days after the [Trudeau government’s] swearing-in they said, “Oh, by the way, 25,000 is totally unrealistic, maybe 10,000.”

Lo and behold, that’s exactly what we had said. That part can be a bit frustrating. But we have to get back to the good part which is we’re very happy that Canada is playing a role in receiving Syrian refugees, something that Stephen Harper had been abysmal at.

I know you’ve been asked about your position as NDP leader a number of times, but let me ask again. Firstly, are you absolutely determined to stay on as leader? Secondly, was there ever a moment in the days or weeks after the election that you wavered on that?

There are moments, when I’m talking sometimes to a defeated colleague, who I would still love to have standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the House of Commons. I feel that weight on my shoulders. I know I’m the only person responsible. I’m the party leader.

The short answer to your first question is, since the day of the election, despite my sadness at the result knowing that we came up short, you know what? We’re the New Democratic Party and in the end it’s up to the members. I continue to work hard and tirelessly across Canada.

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