The Macleans.ca Interview: Thomas Mulcair
The NDP's man in Quebec on how Jack convinced him to join the party and why Quebec voters may finally be ready to follow his example
Kady O'Malley | Jun 27, 2007 | 18:08:45
When word hit the Hill this year that charismatic former Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair was ready to make the move to federal politics, most insiders expected him to sign on with Stéphane Dion's green team. Instead, he went orange and since April he's been criss-crossing the province as Jack Layton's Quebec lieutenant.
Last week, he won the NDP nomination in the Montreal riding of Outrement. Though a safe seat for a federalist, it will be a tough fight for a party that hasn't held a seat in Quebec since the Mulroney years. Still, in an interview last month, Mulcair said he was ready for the challenge - and he predicts the NDP may have some surprises in store when Quebecers - and Canadians - next go to the polls.
Macleans.ca: Why the jump to federal politics and why the NDP?
Thomas Mulcair: Well, when I decided to leave cabinet in February 2006... the first question that I had to find an answer to was whether I wanted to stay in politics. I'm an attorney and I could have returned to private practice. But I really felt strongly that I still had something to contribute. I've been in public life for pretty well 30 years - I started in 1978 and I'm one of those rare Quebec anglos who has worked his way through the system in Quebec City. I really felt that I still had something to contribute and I'd known Jack Layton for a long time, going back to when he was head of the Association of Canadian Municipalities.
I was invited up to the NDP convention in Quebec City in September last year and we hit it off. They had asked me to give a presentation on a bill that I had piloted in Quebec City on sustainable development, where we had changed Quebec's Charter of Rights to include the right to live in a clean environment. I was really astonished by the reception I got and it was quite clear to me that, no matter how detailed things were, people in the NDP knew the environment. Then Jack and his wife Olivia and my wife Catherine and I had a nice supper together in Hudson. We continued talking through part of the spring and finally the deal was sealed.
M: What about the lack of an NDP organization on the ground in Quebec?
TM: There are two specific things that Jack has asked me to do. One is to build a core of high profile candidates for the NDP, with a view to the next election. We're working well and hard on that and will have a few announcements coming in the next little while.
The other thing he wants to do - and is very keen to do - is to tour Quebec. Although he's a Quebecer, he's had the highest profile in Toronto, so Quebecers gain a lot by getting to know him. He's been on some of the main French shows, like Tout le monde en parle, so he's becoming increasingly well known and people like what they see.
This is a tiny fact that went unnoticed - although our numbers in general are up, we're actually one point ahead of the federal Liberals amongst francophones. That's impressive. The fact of the matter is that with the view to the next election in Quebec, there are going to be a lot of four-way races - and when you start with four-way races and you get into the 20 per cent range, you're going to start winning ridings.
M: What about uniting the left, particularly in Quebec, given the shifting dynamics we've seen in the provincial election? Is there room for the NDP? Are you fighting the Liberals, or the Bloc?
TM: The group that's the most nervous about us right now is the Bloc, because we have a lot of the same values. After the debacle of the PQ in the last provincial election, the Bloc is nervous generally, and specifically with the NDP. We had our NDP banner, and a lot of young and enthusiastic and keen people marching with us in the May 1 parade and the Bloc wasn't even there. The Québec solidaire people were there, with their co-leaders, but the Bloc was conspicuously absent. Since I've declared for the NDP, I've been thrilled by the reaction. Someone told me a very funny anecdote. Ed Broadbent was having some work done at his cottage, which is on the Quebec side, and one of the fellows working there said, "C'est un bon coup."
On the Quebec side, I'm a fairly well known figure and I think we're going to be able to bring the view to Quebec that we're a real option. In the last election, we started to have breakthroughs. An economics professor named Jean Paul Lauzon finished close to the 20 per cent mark in Outrement. People are paying attention and that lets you get your ground game going and you start drawing in volunteers. That's how you win elections - door knocking and volunteers doing the phone calls for you.
M: The environment is your passion, but give me three other things that you want to work on in the House.
TM: On international issues, Canada's role as a peacekeeper is one of the things we can all be most proud of and I find it a shame to see us involved in a war in Afghanistan, without any plausible reason for us to be continuing in that war and in that role. Like all Canadians, I think we've got a lot to be proud of in our history - going back to Pearson - and I still don't understand why we're there. I've listened as the excuses have changed. First, we were there, in Mr. O'Connor's words, to avenge 9/11. Then we were there for Canadian values, but Canadian values include working for peace and development and what we see there is anything but. The other reason was women's rights and no one argues against women's rights, but if that's the case, there are a lot of other places in the world where we should be involved.
I like what the NDP has done on a simple issue like bank fees, which finds resonance not just with the average Canadian, but absolutely with the average Quebecer as well, who looks at this situation, and says "What are we doing here?"
But above and beyond anything else, I'm a public administrator and a manager. I chaired Quebec's largest regulatory agency and reduced staff there and brought in management schemes to make things more effective. People in politics tend to see successes in terms of increasing the budget, but when I was minister of the environment, I reduced by 15 per cent the budget of the ministry, brought in a new scheme for enforcing legislation and increased by a great deal the amount of inspection on the ground. That's just good management.
NDP governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have had consecutive, very tight budgets that are always respected, stay within their means and have a heart. It's public administration with a heart and that's what distinguishes the NDP from the others. What people in Quebec are so tired of is, in the past year, on key dossiers like Kyoto, we've watched the Conservatives say "You didn't get the job done" - which is true, but doesn't give them an excuse not to do it. These are key issues of public concern. The gun registry was a shambles, in terms of public administration and they wasted a lot of money, but that doesn't become an excuse for the Tories to dismantle it.