Monday 26 March 2012

Reflections on Thomas Mulcair, new leader of the NDP

This weekend (March 25-26), the New Democratic Party (NDP) elected its new leader, who instantly becomes Leader of the Opposition. For those unacquainted with Canadian-style federal politics, several important qualities distinguish it from both the American and the British schemes. In some senses, it is a mix of both those forerunners. In Canada, we elect parties rather than the individuals who lead them. Any party is entitled to replace its leader simply by holding a leadership convention.  Canada, unlike the United States, has several political parties, not just two.
In the case of the NDP, the leadership convention was held because its former leader, Jack Layton, died of cancer last August. Before he died, when he was too sick to continue, he appointed Ms. Nycole Turmel as interim leader. She held the reins until this weekend, when Thomas Mulcair was elected after four rounds of voting and several hours’ delay thanks to some cyber-attacks on the voting software. (This has been traced to two IP addresses, but so far no fingers have been pointed.)
Jack (everyone calls him Jack, not Mr. Layton) achieved something historic in Canadian politics. Although it won the right to govern in several provinces, the NDP had never before become the Official Opposition at the federal level. This was in part because Jack was born in Montreal; his command of French was not fluent, but very good, good enough to satisfy Quebecers. Of particular note is the fact that the NDP had never before won so many seats in Quebec. In part, this was due to the widespread loss of faith in the Bloc Quebecois, a party consisting solely of Quebecers and at least in theory dedicated to the eventual separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada.
Another thing distinguishes the NDP from the other parties in Canada. Every member of the party gets one vote. There are no backroom brokers. In the other parties (and in the past, also in the NDP), losing candidates could cross the floor and throw their supporters’ votes to another candidate. No more, in the NDP. Granted, Mr. Mulclair was endorsed by Ed Broadbent, the elder statesman of the party, but that is a far cry from backroom politics.
Another remarkable thing about the leadership convention was the proportion of young people. Jack used to say that when he was contesting the party leadership, he often found himself the youngest person in the room.
What of Thomas Mulcair? First, he is from Quebec and is fluently bilingual. He was also the first NDP candidate to be elected within Quebec. Under Jack’s leadership, Mr. Mulclair played the pit bull to Jack’s conciliator; more than a few within the NDP believe that it takes a pit bull to fight one, and if anything is certain in Canadian politics, it is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a pit bull with an agenda and is willing to ride roughshod over anyone who stands in his way, and over anything, including the Constitution and criminal law.
Yet Mr. Mulcair’s speeches contained much about moving toward the political centre. Some candidates and party members heard this as an abandonment of traditional core values within the party. In my view that is not the case; rather, given the collapse of the Liberal party (which was traditionally either the government or the Opposition) in the last federal election, Mr. Mulcair sees this moment as the opportunity to bring thousands of former Liberals into the NDP tent.
Prime Minister Harper, meanwhile, has moved steadily further and further to the right, alienating a sizable number of what we call soft-Conservatives. The next election is not for three and a half years, which in my view is a bad thing for Canada but probably a good thing for the NDP, in the sense that it will have time to get its sea legs, dream of actually winning the next election, and ponder what to do in the event of a minority government. (A majority government, as we have now, is a situation in which the governing party holds more seats than all the others combined, and thus can pretty much do whatever it wants. A minority government can be tossed from power anytime the other parties outvote it, although in practice there is a distinction between critical bills (votes of confidence) such as the federal budget, and less critical bills, whose failure to pass will not trigger an election.
There has been some talk about the NDP and the Liberals forming a coalition next time around. This could be a formal coalition or just a strategic one, in which both parties agree not to run candidates in ridings considered to be shoe-ins for the other party. On the other hand, some NDPers feel that since 1994, there has been almost nothing to distinguish Liberals from Conservatives. I would hold that while this may well apply to the Liberal leadership, there is no reason to believe it applies to the rank and file.
Today (March 26) is Mr. Mulcair’s first day in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition. Whether he comes out like a pit bill or in the always-polite and genteel mode of Jack remains to be seen. Nobody, especially his opponents, disputes Mr. Mulcair’s masterful debating skills and sharp wit. My own opinion is that he should hand off the pit-bull collar to someone else in the shadow cabinet, and shift to Jack’s mode for himself. Still, I do expect him to hit the Conservatives very hard in their weak spots – the RoboCall scandal (in which thousands of voters who stated to canvassers that they were not going to vote Conservative received erroneous phone calls allegedly from the offices of Elections Canada, telling them their voting polls had changed and directing them elsewhere); the G20 diversion of money away from security issues and into ludicrous projects in Tony Clement’s riding, that clearly had nothing to do with security; forcing Air Canada pilots back to work when they were in a clearly legal position to strike (the justification for which was the travel plans of students and families during Spring Break); and a host of others.
We shall soon see.

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