In other news, Tom Mulcair is also here

The NDP leader picks a fight he can win
Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 20, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

It is easy to forget about Thomas Mulcair. He has not recently partaken of an elaborate photo op, nor recently confessed to have partook of an illicit substance since taking office. And the orange line seems slowly to be squiggling its way back to the NDP’s traditional fraction of the public’s support.

Of course, the NDP’s number is still some four times that of the Senate. So here, for that and other reasons, Mr. Mulcair is well-positioned to crow for the cameras, as he did this morning, explaining his case near the outset with a particularly florid sentence.

“Today,” he said, “we are here to mark the beginning of the end of the discredited, outdated and undemocratic institution of Conservative and Liberal entitlement, extravagance and excess.”

The cause today and for the next week—and for as long as the NDP has existed and for the next two years—is the abolition of the Senate. Mr. Mulcair is to be making various appearances in various parts of the country for the purposes of touting the NDP’s opposition to the upper chamber’s existence.

He would get to a principled argument against maintaining an appointed upper house, but Mr. Mulcair proceeded first with the roll call of the infamous: Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb, “jet-setting Pamela Wallin,” Mike Duffy (“the ultimate Ottawa insider and the best known fictional resident from PEI since Anne of Green Gables”) and Raymond Lavigne (“you’ll find him in government housing of a very different sort over at the Ottawa jail”).

New Democrats luxuriate here in the benefit of having never been popular enough to form government and thus having never been in a position to appoint anyone to that place (though Mr. Mulcair made a point of noting that the party had rejected Paul Martin’s attempt to appoint an NDP senator in 2005). And this matter of the Senate revives in them some of that anti-establishment spirit that might be said to define them until they ever possess the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The fact is, Ottawa is broken,” Mr. Mulcair said, echoing his sainted predecessor, “and the debris is scattered across the Senate floor. Canadians are sick and tired of the revolving red and blue doors of Liberal and Conservative corruption … Canadians are saying, enough is enough. Ottawa is broken and the NDP…”

The studio audience, all seemingly party staff with apparently not much to do, cheered and Mr. Mulcair, still figuring out this speech-making thing, paused to finish his thought.

“And the NDP is the only party that will fix it.”

On the basic existence of the Senate, Mr. Mulcair also has the benefit of an unequivocal and strident position. The Prime Minister would like to reform the chamber, but not so much that he has been willing to move forward with his own legislation and maybe not so much that he’s willing to deal with the provinces and as such Mr. Harper might end up being in favour of abolition, even if he told Mr. Mulcair just six months ago that abolition wasn’t a realistic proposal. Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, wants to somehow change the way senators are appointed.

So at least until Mr. Harper decides to change his mind, Mr. Mulcair has the abolition argument to himself. And even if Mr. Harper decides to change his mind, the NDP has the status of being into abolition way before it was cool.

Of fixing Ottawa, Mr. Mulcair must compete directly with Mr. Trudeau, who, though he might lead the establishment party of the 20th century, is angling to be the living embodiment of newness, not merely with his talking about smoking doobies, but with his stated interest in changing the way politics is done. On that count, Mr. Trudeau is possibly leading on points.

But on almost all counts the next two years seem wide open to possibility.

If there is something fun about Mr. Trudeau, there is still something formidable about Mr. Mulcair. That, plus the benefit of starting with 100 seats, makes it still conceivable that he will become prime minister sometime shortly after the 2015 election. He had a decent spring in the House, with his prosecutorial approach (and he promised further interrogations to come whenever the House returns) and he has some talent around him on the official opposition’s benches.

If Mr. Mulcair is not quite a riveting speaker, his speechwriters at least gave him a few good quips this morning. He can handle himself in a scrum and seem to look and sound the part of a serious man with various references to relatively arcane matters of public policy. He can seem like he knows what he’s talking about, but he is also just a bit audacious—flirting, for instance, with linking the disaster in Lac-Megantic to government policy, apparently without necessarily wanting to assert blame and long before any kind of conclusions can be drawn.

This morning, he was asked about Liberal plans, as the reporter phrased it, to discuss “the implementation of a system for putting all their expenses online.” “Will there,” the reporter asked, “be some plan to put all NDP MPs’ expenses online?”

“We’ve been doing that for months,” Mr. Mulcair came back.

“Every single expense?” the reporter clarified.

“Yes,” Mr. Mulcair said.

This was apparently reference to the fact that some NDP MPs now use their websites to link to the expense summaries that are publicly released through Parliament. The Liberal plan would seem to seek to go beyond that, but the scrum moved on before the distinctions could be explored.

On other topics—Syria, Pauline Marois, free trade—he was more expansive. And nearer the end of his time with reporters, he presaged, with something like the foreword to a treatise, the larger discussion he apparently seeks to soon have.

“Sometimes the events that happen in a year allow you to put the spotlight on some of the major policy differences between you, so there’s a whole approach to governing that the NDP is proposing. When we talk about public protection, and you know, sometimes people say well, you mean public safety, I say, no, public protection. That’s a verb. Public safety is a noun,” he helpfully explained. “Regulation has taken on an only negative connotation. It’s always, you know, put together with red tape and it’s always considered something to be gotten rid of. When you realize that regulatory schemes exist to protect the public, whether it’s in food safety or railways or maritime search and rescue, you understand that when the government has savings that have to be realized, you have to set up priorities, and the very last thing you should be cutting is public protection. Tragically, because the Conservatives like being in power, but they don’t like governing, the first thing they tend to cut is the direct service to the public, is the public protection …We’re going to have that open conversation.”

Is there a conversation to be had here? Probably. Is it the defining conversation of the next two years? Maybe. But even if it is—or whatever the argument for 2015 is to be—it will be even harder than killing the Senate. And it for now remains to be seen whether Mr. Mulcair can both lead and then win that larger debate. Even being heard might be a challenge.