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Editorial: NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is positioned to make history

April 2012

With the keys to Stornoway—official residence of the leader of the opposition—in his pocket, NDP leader Tom Mulcair has his work cut out for him. Can he adapt his attack style so he can be seen as a prime minister in waiting, a reasonable alternative to Stephen Harper?

Can he broaden NDP support and offer distinct policies while remaining faithful to the party’s social-democratic base?

Mulcair has shown in the way he ran his campaign and in the understated and thoughtful way he started his new role that he understands he needs to adjust his public persona. Though Brian Topp had the support of the party establishment, Mulcair succeeded in getting the leadership contest extended so he could build up membership in Quebec, his natural base of support. He did it quietly and respectfully and his request was granted.

Though the campaign lacked lustre and made few headlines, it became clear to NDP stalwarts that Mulcair had the experience, judgment and debating skills necessary in these media-focused times to “sell” the NDP product. Let us not forget that he made a name for himself as head of the Office des professions du Québec, where he made disciplinary hearings more transparent, with zero tolerance for sexual abuse of patients by medical professionals.

He then catapulted into the Quebec Liberal Party and got good marks from environmental critics for his handling of that portfolio. He quit against a background of disagreement over the proposed privatization of Mont Orford Park. His winning a by-election and subsequent re-election for the federal NDP in Outremont—once considered an unassailable Liberal bastion—says a lot about his ability to take on tough political challenges.

His main point, that the NDP has to appeal to progressive voters who support the Liberals, was well received. How he goes about it will be the key to his plan to make the traditional third party in Canadian politics into the first. The devil will be in the details, but NDP rank and filers obviously agree.

Critics from the left feared he would deal harshly with Libby Davies, the Vancouver East MP who supports boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Mulcair confounded those critics by naming Davies his deputy leader. Whether he will insist she modify her Israel opinions remains to be seen. Mulcair risks defeat in Outremont and the NDP would suffer if the party is perceived to be too one-sided in its Middle East policies.

The other unknown factor in the NDP’s fortunes under Mulcair is how the Liberals fill their leadership vacuum. Interim leader Bob Rae is formidable as a debater and is proving capable and attractive heading the Grits. (How ironic that a former Ontario NDP premier speaks for the Liberals and a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister heads the NDP.)

The new face is the bearded Mulcair. He has a clear field to establish a prime ministerial persona, build a shadow cabinet, tailor and develop policies to make the case for an NDP government.



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