Thomas Mulcair’s plan to win the next election

Thomas Mulcair on a PM who won’t talk to anyone, fair taxes, dealing with Quebec, and winning the next election

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

If there’s going to be a happy warrior in the 2015 election, then, by God, Tom Mulcair is determined it’ll be him. The NDP leader arrived at Toronto’s Rogers headquarters, fresh from a Labour Day parade, and remained determinedly upbeat through a half-hour conversation. Next year’s election campaign is already under way, he said. He hinted at what the NDP will promise on business taxes, carbon pricing, child care, the Senate and more. The past year has been frustrating for the man who replaced the revered Jack Layton as head of Parliament’s first NDP official Opposition. Too much of the spotlight, for his taste, has gone to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. But if ever a leader has relished an uphill fight, it’s Mulcair.

Q: You are off to Edmonton for your national caucus retreat. I have this image of every MP vanishing into a chute. When they come out the end of it, there will be a new prime minister, or the one we’ve got now. Is this essentially a pre-electoral session of Parliament?

A: No question. Everything that the government’s going to be doing for the next year, everything we’re going to be doing as the Opposition, has one objective in mind: forming the government. We’d love, for the first time in Canadian history, to have an NDP government, and that’s what we’re working toward.

Q: What are you going to do to achieve that?

A: We’re going to keep putting substantive things on the table, which we started doing just over a year ago. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper announced, without ever telling anyone in advance that this was something he was thinking of, in Davos, Switzerland, that Canadians now have to work until 67 to receive their pension. I remember the 2011 campaign where he never mentioned that to Canadians. We’re going to call him out on that and ask what else is he hiding, if he ever gets re-elected. The NDP is going to roll that age back from 67 to 65. We’ve already started to talk that, if there is a surplus, we’ll avoid the reduction in the transfers that the Conservatives have already announced. Remember that [former finance minister Jim] Flaherty, after no discussion or debate, simply announced that there would be as much as $36 billion less transferred to the provinces. What we’re saying is that, if you have a surplus, it’s a false one, because you’re planning that cut—then make sure it goes over to health care as a priority. This fall, you’ll hear us talk about child care. I’ve been going across Canada, listening to parents, talking with provincial authorities. It’s a big issue for us. The Liberals got rid of the federal minimum wage the last time they were in power—you’ll hear us talking a lot about that, as well.

Q: So let’s start to add some of this up: pensions back to age 65, stopping the closure of post offices, holding up the rate of health care transfers to what it had been for the last several years, and reopening veterans’ centres. That’s a lot of money.

A: Nine veterans’ centres does not cost a lot of money. In fact, in the overall budgets of the government, it was more of a slap in the face to those brave men and women than anything else. And, yes, we will reopen those nine offices. The post office made a profit 18 out of the last 19 years. The only year it didn’t was when the Conservatives locked out the workers. It was bad-faith bargaining from the word go, because they wanted to create a condition where they could play that game of forcing them back to work. It came as Jack Layton’s last work in Parliament. It was also an opportunity for Canadians to get to know the young women and men who were in our caucus, and it gave them the ability to develop their chops on a tough issue, the longest filibuster in Canadian parliamentary history.

Q: Post offices and veterans’ centres don’t cost a lot, but pensions and health transfers still do.

A: These numbers were run by [former parliamentary budget officer] Kevin Page. There was no reason except for ideology to move the age of retirement from 65 to 67. Page couldn’t have been clearer: He ran the numbers and the system was sustainable the way it was. And if you really believe in something and you’re the Prime Minister of Canada, do you go to the Swiss Alps to make that announcement? Or do you have the courage to go to Sudbury, [Ont.] and tell hard-rock miners that they don’t work hard enough and need to do it for another couple of years? I know which choice Stephen Harper made. I’d talk to Canadians, straight up.

Q: Straight up, then, how are you going to get the revenues for your spending promises?

A: Unlike the Liberals, who say they aren’t going to touch anything, we’ve been clear that the only Canadians who haven’t been paying their fair share are Canadian corporations. They’ve had their tax level dropped way below the OECD average, way below what the Americans are paying. All the things that cost the general public a lot through their taxes, corporations—who use that money to generate profit—should be paying their fair share. Mr. Harper doesn’t believe in that, but we do.

Q: In your speech to the Canadian Medical Association, you talked about $50 billion in corporate tax cuts, with $36 billion being paid for by health transfers. Is that about the scale of the corporate income tax increases you’re looking at, $50 billion?

A: We will make sure that Canadian corporate taxes stay below what the Americans have been charging, because we’ve always had the competitive gap. We need to make sure Canada remains an attractive place to invest. We’ll also wind up below the OECD average, but we’re so far below both right now, it doesn’t make any sense. And the order of magnitude that you’re discussing? No, we won’t put things back to exactly where they were before. We’re going to make sure Canada remains competitive, but also ensure corporations pay their fair share, which they aren’t doing right now. We’ve lost the balance in our tax system.

Q: Are you anticipating any revenues from some kind of carbon pricing mechanism?

A: We’re going to have revenues, because there’s going to be a price on carbon, and that money is going to be paid over immediately for purposes that have to do with the environment. In other words, Canada will become a major player in green renewables. Right now, we’re not a major player, because our current government doesn’t believe our state has a role to play. But we think it’s the key to creating the next generation of well-paid jobs in our country.

Q: I’m catching up with you in Toronto, where there are 30-odd federal seats within several miles of us. Do the people of Toronto know Tom Mulcair well enough?

A: I’m certainly doing what I can to make that the case. We’ve been multiplying our presences here, trying to go to a range of cultural and business events. When I came out of Quebec politics, I was a well-known figure, but less so federally. Jack gave me an excellent opportunity to shine in Ottawa when he made me the deputy leader. But there’s no question that my family name might be common in Ireland, but less so here. We’re trying to increase our profile and let people know we’re continuing the proud tradition of the NDP.

Q: I often remind people that, in 2011, most NDP seats were in Quebec, but most of its voters are outside of Quebec and that’s a difficult—

A: Equation?

Q: Yes, it’s hard to strike a balance: Quebec is a distinct society. Do you often find yourself having to arbitrate between your Quebec base and reaching beyond it?

A: Across Canada and within Quebec, people are reacting very well to our MPs. So I watch them and I watch how people react to them—I’ve been in this game a long time, I’ve got some subjective analysis—and they’re doing great. That’s the positive side of what Jack put together. The 2006 offer, the Sherbrooke Declaration, without reopening the Constitution, simply answering some of the long-standing requests Quebec has had that don’t take anything away from anyone—that’s the way to go, as far as we were concerned. And Quebecers were ready for that sea change: rejecting the Bloc [Québécois] because all they could do was block, and wondering if they could make things work while staying part of Canada; that’s the hope for the future.

Q: Are you ruling out constitutional change to accommodate Quebec’s traditional demands?

A: It’s not on the table. It doesn’t mean these things couldn’t be constitutionalized at a later date, but I think Canadians have always seen this as the third rail for the whole country.

Q: You’re talking about a substantial increase in health transfers over what the Conservatives have planned. Would you ask for some kind of deal in return from the provinces?

A: It’s not that hard. If you do it right, you can get the best practices on the table. I’ve heard, “The federal government should be doing X to require Y of the provinces.” But, in this case, the federal government is itself a health care provider—about 20 per cent across the country, when you add together veterans, penitentiaries and First Nations. I think some of the federal health care practices are worth copying, but, otherwise, I don’t know that it has that many lessons to offer the provinces and territories. Even so, Stephen Harper hasn’t once met with the Council of the Federation. You can’t run a country like Canada if you don’t talk to your partners. We’ve undertaken to have two meetings a year, one in Ottawa and one in a province or territory on a rotating basis to ensure we work together.

Q: Would the Prime Minster attend both meetings?

A: I would, as prime minister.

Q: Would they ever get a chance to meet alone?

A: As often as they want. But the Council of the Federation was a hopeful sign that an era of bickering was now over. Instead, we got a Prime Minister who won’t talk to anyone else. He won’t talk to journalists, either. I’m not afraid to talk to either.

Q: Would a prime minister Tom Mulcair show up at one of these Council of the Federation meetings with a proposal to abolish the Senate? And how would he do on that day?

A: Well, I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. I’ve been going across the country, whether it’s meeting with Premier [Robert] Ghiz in P.E.I. . . . He was quite clear with me; he’s not going to fight to keep senators. He does want to keep his four MPs, and that wouldn’t be a hard deal to make. We believe that, in this day and age, having this simulated House of Lords dictating to the elected what they can and can’t do is an absurdity. In Quebec City, [the former upper house, abolished in 1968] is a lovely meeting room, and in the House of Commons, we think the Senate would make the ideal daycare.

Q: The Supreme Court says: Not so fast; you need the consent of every provincial legislature.

A: I don’t disagree with that. In fact, I just said that.

Q: Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says he doesn’t want to play.

A: Well, Philippe Couillard said something a little bit more substantial than that. He had a series of things, looking at what he would call traditional demands, or requests. Those would include the ability to opt out of federal spending in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Go to the Sherbrooke Declaration: You don’t need constitutional change to have that sort of arrangement between Quebec and the federal government, so the things he’s set down could easily be answered. If you look at the Sherbrooke Declaration, it’s there—most of it. The only one that requires a little bit of fine tuning is, he’s talking about exclusive jurisdiction on immigration. Obviously, Canada’s a country, there’s going to have to be continued co-operation, but Quebec has a more open ability to deal with the selection of immigrants than any other province, and we can enhance that. But Canada would still have to be Canada.

Q: The Conservatives have been running radio ads against Trudeau and his marijuana policy. They’ve spent about a million bucks on them. They’ve run far fewer ads against Mulcair and the NDP. Do you feel left out?

A: Well, I’ll let the Conservatives make their evaluations. They’re pretty smart politicians. They obviously consider it a good investment; I wouldn’t put my money on that.

Q: Is it frustrating to ask at least five questions a day in question period; to travel the country as avidly as you do; and to see, for 16 consecutive months, the Liberals leading in the polls?

A: You know, what’s going to happen a year from now is that people are going to be voting to determine who can actually run the government and lead a G7 country. I think the concentration of people around that issue is going to lead a lot of people to the NDP. I’ve always understood that the NDP is going to have to fight for every column-inch. We’re going to continue fighting. I do have the well-deserved reputation of being a strong fighter. I bring that fight to issues that are important to us in the NDP and have always identified us: Fighting for workers’ rights. Fighting for better wages. Fighting to ensure that families have a better shake in the current economy, where a lot of good-paying jobs are lost. We’re the only ones who talk about that, and we’re going to continue doing it.

Q: I think one of the Conservative calculations is that, in the election, you’ll stop turning all your attention on the government and turn a good measure onto the Liberals.

A: My attention is on Stephen Harper and his Conservatives. The Conservative policies of Stephen Harper are hurting the country that I know and love. I love Canada. I’m proud of being a Canadian. When I go across the country, I see just how lucky we are, and when I go across Quebec, I see a hopefulness that I haven’t seen in decades.

Q: So, in 13 months, we’re going to have a federal election. It’s easy to imagine a scenario that looks like this: The Conservatives lose a bunch of seats, but still have more seats than any other party. Liberals and New Democrats together have more seats than the Conservatives do. Who should be prime minister in that kind of situation?

A: Well, I’ll let you and the other pundits discuss that one ad infinitum, but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to work tirelessly from coast to coast to coast to elect an NDP government.

Q: Should the party that wins the most seats at the next election form the government?

A: Yes. The party that forms the next government is the party that has the largest number of seats. That’s our constitutional order.

Q: Let me test that with a hypothetical: If it’s the Conservatives with 130 seats, and the other two parties between you have way more than that, should the Conservatives still form the government?

A: Our constitutional form of government says that the first kick goes to the party that has the largest number of seats.

Q: “The first kick”: The Conservatives would get to test the House, and then the House would decide?

A: Not really, because the NDP is going to be forming the government, because we’ll have the largest number of seats.

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