March 23, 2012

Opposition battles for the center

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — If Thomas Mulcair is elected leader of the New Democratic Party this weekend, as most observers say he will be, it will create one of the more ironic situations in modern Canadian politics — this in a country created by a seemingly contradictory Liberal-Conservative Party.

Mulcair, 57, is a former Liberal member of Quebec's National Assembly. He served as environment minister in Premier Jean Charest's administration from 2003 until he resigned in 2007 over a policy dispute. Shortly afterwards, he jumped to the left-leaning federal New Democratic Party and promptly won a by-election in a traditional Liberal riding in central Montreal.

If Mulcair becomes New Democratic Party chief and leader of the Official Opposition, replacing Jack Layton, who died of cancer suddenly last summer, he will face what you might call his political mirror image in the person of current Liberal leader Bob Rae.

As we've mentioned in this space before, Rae was once a New Democratic wunderkind on the federal level, so much so he was wooed to lead the party in Ontario. In 1990, to his great surprise victory, he beat the Liberal government of the day and helmed the first (and still only) New Democratic government in Canada's most powerful province.

There are several significant implications to these two high-level political conversions. The first is that a goodly number of the rank-and-file members of both the federal New Democratic Party and Liberals are not comfortable to see a former political enemy take over the party they cherish.

The second is that both leaders have the capacity to shift their new chosen party in a different direction, in Mulcair's case toward the center of the political spectrum. Mulcair, on the contrary, says he's not dragging the party to the center; the center is coming to him.

Rae, it should be noted, is officially the interim leader of the Liberals. He took on the post in the wake of the once-dominant party's devastating defeat in last May's election, relegating it to third place behind the New Democratics. However, he is thought to be doing such a fine job as leader — aided, no doubt, by the vacuum the New Democratic leadership race has created — that the Liberals may want to keep him when they get around to choosing a rightful leader.

Rae got a backhand endorsement of sorts this week from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives when they released an online attack ad dragging up memories of the missteps of his Ontario government.

Commentators following the New Democratic Party race agree Mulcair has raised the most money, attracted the most endorsements from party notables and, perhaps most importantly, offered the key to sustaining the New Democratic Party's hugely bolstered position by solidifying its support in Quebec.

The New Democratics soared to the waiting room of power almost entirely on the basis of the 59 seats it won in Quebec. Layton's personal popularity gets much of the credit, but so do Mulcair's organizational skills in the province, as someone has worked on the ground as an activist — for an English-language rights organization, among other endeavors — and as an elected official.

Critics say Mulcair's downside is his alleged abrasiveness and his sensitivity to Quebec issues at the expense of a more pan-Canadian perspective.

The prospect of his becoming leader even sparked an outburst from former New Democratic leader and respected godfather of the party Ed Broadbent, who is supporting long-time party activist Brian Topp. Broadbent questioned Mulcair's temperament to be leader and warned of pulling the party too close to the center, traditional Liberal territory.

Not even a year into a four-year majority mandate the Conservative government has plenty of time of blast away at whoever should lead the New Democratic Party, or the Liberals for that matter. Polls show Harper is still on top as he pursues a measured program to shift the country to the right.

Pundits agree, though, that among the choices available, the Conservatives have the most to fear from seasoned warriors like Mulcair and Rae, wherever they may be positioned near the center.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at