Thomas Mulcair, the man no one hears

The NDP leader has hit a stride in question period, but voters don’t seem to be listening

Andrew Tolson

Depending on how you look at him, Thomas Mulcair enters 2014 deserving to feel like either the most satisfied man in Canadian politics, or the most frustrated. The federal NDP leader was able to capitalize on the Senate spending scandal in 2013 to establish himself as Stephen Harper’s most dangerous assailant in the House. But his probing question period style on that issue has failed to boost his party’s standing in the polls—while the federal Liberals, despite what most observers agree has been Justin Trudeau’s weaker QP performance, have widened their lead.

No wonder Mulcair isn’t only taking aim these days at Harper’s Conservatives. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, he spoke not so much about ousting the Tories as ending the old Canadian habit of switching back and forth between Conservative and Liberal governments. He drew an explicit link between past Liberal scandals and the Senate spending affair now plaguing Harper. Most Canadians no doubt missed the news that Jacques Corriveau, an 80-year-old former Liberal organizer, was finally charged last month with fraud in relation to the so-called sponsorship scandal, which so badly damaged the Liberal brand a long decade ago. Not Mulcair. He pointedly raised the Corriveau case as a reminder of what laid the Liberals low, and lifted Harper into power, back in 2006.

“This is how we do things in Canada,” Mulcair said. “When you get tired of the Liberals, you throw them out and bring in the Conservatives. When you get tired of the Conservatives, you throw them out and bring in the Liberals. I honestly believe Canadians deserve better than being told they have no choice but to alternate between Liberal corruption and Conservative corruption.”

But persuading Canadians to vote NDP as the way to break that familiar two-party oscillation has proven enormously difficult for Mulcair, just as it did for all his predecessors. Jack Layton’s 2011 breakthrough, carrying the NDP over the Liberals into second place, seemed to many New Democrats like a decisive step toward power. Since Layton’s death from cancer, however, the troubling question for them has been how much the 2011 result was his personal triumph rather than their party’s coming-of-age.

In the interview, Mulcair suggested several key ways he hopes to reassert the NDP’s claim to being a genuine alternative in 2014. He repeatedly drew on his background as a former provincial environment minister in Jean Charest’s Liberal government in Quebec. He clearly hopes his experience in government sets him apart from Trudeau, who was a schoolteacher before he became an MP. As well, Mulcair pitches his NDP as a well-managed party with sensible, progressive aims—not, as some still see it, a movement more suited to protest than power. “Look at the unity and discipline in our caucus,” he urged. “Look at the discipline in our message.”

That message will likely have two main elements in the coming months: continued hard-hitting questions on the Senate spending scandal and a bid by Mulcair to recast the NDP’s image on economic issues. On the Senate, he shows no sign of letting up. His aim is obvious: bringing as much of the blame as possible down upon Harper’s own head. The core questions swirl around how much the Prime Minister knew about plans spearheaded by his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and other Tory insiders, to secretly pay back expenses dubiously claimed by Sen. Mike Duffy. It’s a complicated affair, but Mulcair insisted voters are not yet tiring of it. “As I travel across the country, Canadians have been coming up to me in all sorts of situations and saying, ‘Keep going. You’re asking the questions we’d like to ask. Keep holding their feet to the fire,’ ” he said.

Yet, if Canadians are so enthusiastic about Mulcair’s prosecutorial zeal on Senate spending, why don’t the polls show him reaping the benefits? Last September, Harris-Decima pegged NDP support at 24 per cent, the Conservatives at 29 per cent and the Liberals at 33 per cent. After a fall dominated by more Senate-spending revelations, and with Mulcair unrelenting on the matter, the polling firm last month found the NDP stagnant at 23 per cent, Conservatives slipping at 26 per cent, and the Liberal ascendant at 36 per cent. Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg says Mulcair’s best hope is that his intensity on the issue will allow him to bank valuable credibility with reporters and pundits. “Those performances have an indirect effect on public opinion through the filter of the media,” Gregg says. “The media looks at QP every day and thinks, ‘This guy is really, really competent.’ And that, in turn, changes how they cover him.”

Beyond the Senate story, Mulcair was talking up economic files—oil pipelines, pensions and taxes among them. Conservative strategists argue that, when the fixed date for the next election rolls around in the fall of 2015, Harper’s economic record will count for more than his handling of the spending foibles of a few senators. Mulcair’s challenge is to sell himself as moderate enough to ease the concerns of centrist voters, but still progressive enough to keep the NDP’s base energized. A key test will be the Canada-European trade agreement, slated to be finalized sometime in 2014. Mulcair is cautiously holding back on taking a position for or against the deal until the full text is finally released. Supporting it would risk alienating core NDP supporters, including many union leaders. But opposing it would tend to confirm doubts among uncommitted voters about the NDP’s understanding of what drives economic growth.

He is more decisive on the controversial question of oil pipeline projects—a core element in Harper’s vision for Canada as an “energy superpower.” He opposes the Northern Gateway proposal for a pipeline linking Alberta’s oil sands to a new Pacific port, calling the prospect of supertankers plying B.C.’s rugged Douglas Channel a “non-starter.” On Keystone XL, Mulcair argues against the proposed pipeline to siphon Canadian crude to refineries in the southern U.S., in favour of instead upgrading that oil in Canada. Tellingly, he singles out Trudeau’s support for Keystone—more than Harper’s—for missing the chance to create jobs in Canada. The pipeline proposal Mulcair does support is the so-called West-East project, which would see more Alberta oil refined in Quebec and New Brunswick.

Energy politics matter a lot in Harper’s Ottawa, but tax issues likely resonate with more voters. Conservatives are eager to portray Mulcair as a dangerous tax-hiker. That’s how the government portrays the NDP’s policy in favour of expanding the Canada Pension Plan—both the paycheque deductions that fund CPP and the benefits paid to retired Canadians. It’s a concept backed by most premiers, some financial experts and the Canadian Labour Congress. But, in a year-end interview with Global News, Harper dismissed any proposal to “raise CPP taxes” to solve the retirement-income woes of Canadians who have “affluent lifestyles but just don’t save.” Mulcair cited studies showing that millions of Canadians face a serious decline in their standard of living in retirement unless something is done. “Once again, we see the Conservatives taking a very bleak, short-term view—we can’t afford this, we can’t do that,” he said. “Frankly, it’s shameful, it’s shocking.”

While Mulcair’s CPP position finds support that crosses party lines, his enthusiasm for a federal corporate tax hike is more clearly a left-wing policy preference. The average combined federal-provincial corporate tax rate is now about 26 per cent, well below the comparable U.S. rate of about 40 per cent. The Conservatives accuse Mulcair of plotting to eliminate the entire difference, warning that an NDP government would impose a “50 per cent tax hike on job creators.” Mulcair denied that, saying the NDP would narrow the gap, but still leave the Canadian rate lower, although he wouldn’t say by how much. “The combined rate in Canada can be brought closer to the American rate without any ill effects to business or to the economy in Canada,” he said. “The only people not paying their fair share are corporations. They’ve been given a massive tax cut under the Conservatives.”

That’s a message bound to sell well with the committed NDP base. But pollster Gregg questions how well it will resonate with other Canadians, who tend to accept the idea that companies create jobs and shouldn’t be overburdened. “The context has shifted over the last 15 years,” he says. “There’s an orthodoxy today around tent-pole Conservative positions. Small government is better than big government. Trade is better than protectionism. The private sector is better than the public sector at creating jobs.” That leaves the NDP and Liberals facing the same task, Gregg concludes, of “defining a new progressivism that acknowledges those orthodoxies but establishes itself as different.”

But the Liberals’ reconnection with voters has come thanks to Trudeau’s personal appeal, not any fresh policy he’s staked out. David McGrane, a University of Saskatchewan professor of political studies, who is working on a book about the NDP, says only in Quebec does Mulcair’s solid background in provincial politics translate into a clear edge over Trudeau in the polls. In the rest of the country, Mulcair’s image as competent seems to be trumped by Trudeau’s as likeable. “If you had to choose between competency and likeability, choose likeability,” McGrane says. “That’s what gets you places. Layton broke through because people liked and trusted him, not because they viewed him as extremely competent.”

Still, Mulcair is too formidable a politician to be counted out, with all of 2014 and most of 2015 stretching out before the next election. McGrane points to Liberal Premier Christy Clark’s upset win in last year’s B.C. provincial election, and Conservative Premier Alison Redford’s come-from-behind victory in Alberta the year before, as reminders of voter volatility and the decisive importance of election strategy. “The NDP can be heartened, in the sense that things can swing quickly,” he says. Gregg agrees, noting that more voters than ever feel no loyalty to any party and remain wide open to campaign-trail persuasion. In previous eras, going into an election several points behind other parties in the polls was usually insurmountable. “Today,” Gregg says, “that means nothing, nothing.”

To give the NDP a chance of reaping the benefits of voter volatility, though, Mulcair needs to stay competitive. In 2013, he looked as if he found a way, on the Senate file at least, to battle Harper. Trudeau is another matter. Mulcair’s assessment of the Liberals combines partisan loathing and professional respect. “Liberals are willing to say anything to get elected and then, once they’re in office, do just the opposite. That’s their history,” he said, adding, “I’ll give them credit for one thing: They are extremely able at decoding what they think people want to hear.” And with that phrase, Mulcair might have, no doubt unintentionally, touched on his own challenge. Last year, he found his voice in question period. This year, he needs to find a message Canadians will hear beyond the House.

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