Three reasons Stephen Harper is going easy on Thomas Mulcair

Apart from some Conservative sass-talking, the NDP leader rises unhindered. Why? Paul Wells has theories

Why Harper is going easy on Mulcair

Chris Wattie / Reuters

For six years Stephen Harper’s opponents have wondered when he would stop spending millions of dollars to whale the tar out of them. Apparently the answer was that he’d stop as soon as his opponent stopped being Liberal.

Say hello to Thomas Mulcair. A few surprising things have happened since the hairy cosmopolitan took over the New Democratic Party. First, his party has closed ranks behind him. That was hardly guaranteed at the outset. He arrived late to Canada-wide prominence, first elected outside the hothouse of Quebec provincial politics in 2007. His Outremont cloister has no history as an NDP hotbed. And he made a show of running as an outsider to the party’s culture. But everyone’s been grown-up about things so far, and lately he actually seems to be running a more cohesive party than Harper is.

Second, Quebecers haven’t rejected Mulcair. He was always the darling candidate of Le Devoir editorialists, but that’s an unsteady predictor of broader appeal. Many Quebecers voted in 2011 for a vague idea they had about Jack Layton, but many seem to like their new NDP MPs and they like Mulcair. A Léger poll in mid-June suggested his NDP is on track to win substantially more seats than the 59 Layton won last year. We make a lot of fuss about the unsettled Quebec electorate. Perhaps too much. The Bloc Québécois dominated Quebec for six elections and 15 years in a row. If that unsettled vote unsettles around Mulcair in a similar fashion, he could be leader of the Opposition until he’s 71.

Unless he moves up. The third surprise is that strong support for the Mulcair party in Quebec hasn’t hurt its popularity elsewhere. The polls will change, but for now the NDP has done a decent job consolidating the anti-Conservative vote coast to coast. Mulcair’s success contributed to Bob Rae’s decision to forego the Liberal leadership. Rae is said to have decided the Liberals can’t beat the NDP back to third place anytime soon.

Much of Mulcair’s early success can be chalked up to precisely the strong environmentalist stance that his opponents thought would get him in trouble.

Mulcair argues that natural-resource exports are pushing up the value of the loonie and hurting manufacturing exports. This notion has a long-standing name, Dutch disease, because economists think it happened in Holland a long time ago. When Mulcair used it, the Conservatives pounced, announcing that he had called various parts of the country “a disease.” The next round of polls showed the NDP had gained in popularity and the Conservatives had dipped, suggesting that cheap mudslinging is not always more popular than obscure references to back issues of The Economist.

But what Mulcair has done here is a little different from anything Layton ever managed. The former NDP leader was never sure whether he should appeal to the urban environmentalist vote or to rust-belt manufacturing employees. The latter is the old NDP base for membership, financing and organizational muscle—the unionized shop floor. The former is the new base that Layton started to grow, a bien pensant crowd of professionals, academics and creative-class consultants tweeting their concerns as they huddle over travel mugs of fair-trade coffee.

The latté crowd used to vote Liberal. Many still do. But since 2004 they have proved disconcertingly willing to migrate, in growing numbers, to the NDP. The old shop-floor crowd voted Liberal too for a time, but now they are surprisingly likely to vote Conservative. This helps explain why Oshawa-Whitby, Ed Broadbent’s old riding, is now represented by Conservative Colin Carrie. But there are also fewer shop floors than there used to be. Manufacturing employment is down by about one-fifth from its level on the day Jack Layton became NDP leader. Mulcair mourns that shift, but he appeals to the concerns of a growing urban sector over the needs of this suburban sector in decline.

All this can change. The surprise is that Harper is not yet using his old tricks to change it.

His old tricks would consist of a heavy, sustained advertising campaign against the man who has risen highest against him. That’s what he did against Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and then, three months ago, against Bob Rae. Now, one of these things is not like the others. In minority government parliaments where an election always loomed, Dion and Ignatieff were present dangers. But going after Rae looks like a concession to instinct—and a mistake. The money spent has been lost, the neutralized enemy is now gone, and if the Liberals manage to find somebody more impressive to lead them, Harper will wish he’d let Rae limp to the next election.

Meanwhile, apart from the odd bit of ineffectual Conservative sass-talking, Mulcair rises unhindered. Why? Three possibilities. Maybe Harper is lost in the face of superior opposition. Maybe his minions are preparing ads that will take Mulcair apart in 2013.

Or maybe Harper is happy to see Mulcair rise. The Liberals, who governed Canada for most of the 20th century while the Conservatives didn’t, are left squeezed from both sides but too stubborn to disappear. The left-of-Conservative vote remains split. With the Liberals dominant in the centre, Conservative parties won three elections between 1963 and 2004. With the NDP dominant on the left, Conservatives would win more. Harper doesn’t control all of Canadian politics or anywhere close, but if he left a landscape like that behind him, he could retire a happy man.




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Three reasons Stephen Harper is going easy on Thomas Mulcair

  1. “Rae is said to have decided the Liberals can’t beat the NDP back to third place anytime soon.”

    Although Rae is correct that that NDP can’t be pushed back into third place (support in Quebec would preclude that possibility for now), depending on who is selected as leader, and with some bold policies, it is entirely possible for the Liberals to move into second… ahead of the Conservatives.
    The Conservatives dropping to third place (they were only 7-8 points away in a recent poll) would change the dynamic entirely if Liberals took advantage of the opportunity. Framing the next election as a battle between the Liberals and the NDP would shift more of the old PC support to the Liberals, in order to beat back the NDP.

    The Conservatives are a spent force. They moneyballed the last few elections, carving out the narrowest majority possible. Economic conservatives are disappointed with mounting deficits, libertarian conservatives are disappointed with the attacks on civil liberties, and social conservatives are disappointed with Harper’s refusal to reopen social issues (if not now; when?). Two out of those three groups are available to Liberals if they get their act together.

    Bringing it back to your point, Paul, attacks ads like Harper lobbed at Dion and Ignatieff don’t work if you’re in third place (or even a low 2nd). Remember the attacks on Chretien? I would argue that they weren’t much nastier then the worst of the Dion/Iggy attacks. The difference was the polls. Kim Campbell wasn’t popular enough for attack ads to work. The PCs in that election were still fighting with a majority mentality and only when you’re ahead can you attack your opponents like that. Harper knows that, and knows that he can’t attack Mulcair while Mulcair is ahead because the backlash will be worse then the effect of the ad. He could attack the Libs, but its pointless now until they pick a leader. Even then, with Conservative popularity falling, it will be risky to attack the new Liberal leader.

    • So the questions for true and loyal Canadian in the next election will be, (assuming Mulcair leads the NDP and Trudeau leads the Liberals)…. do you want another prime minister from Quebec controlling all of Canada, again? I think I know the answer to that question… don’t you??!!!

      • Well since I’m not a racist mouthbreather, I have no problem with a Quebecer being Prime Minister. I just want a PM who was legally elected, and doesn’t want to anihiliate Canada.

        • Since you’re not a racist mouthbreather, please inform us of exactly what “race” Quebecers are? Or are you just an ignorant mouthbreather?

          It’s perfectly reasonable for people to not want a PM from Quebec, especially if the PQ wins the provincial election. Look at the rioting students in Montreal, who seem to be receiving moral support from the federal NDP MPs from Quebec. Voting against such associations is “racist” in your thin mind? Not wanting Justin Trudeau, who has publicly mused about a seperate Quebec being OK, is “racist’, and not just wanting to keep Canada together?

          Take your petty accusations of racism elsewhere you intellectually dim twit. You’re probably not racist, you’re just dumb.

        • Well I am somewhat sure that our elections have produced the legitimate winner.PET, holds the trophy for wanting to annihilate Canada.
          You are still on the robo call red herring.BTW,only government could take this long to make a ruling.Also,elections Canada is anti-conservative. Cannot get mid-upper job there unless your postal code is Ottawa or other side of the river in Q.C. Fact!. Pick up a Gazette of job postings for the federal gov’t.
          Your partisanship shines through.What you are really saying is you don’t want a Western P.M. ,whatever the stripe. Well ,maybe last name MARX.

      • Knock off the faux patriotism. The real question will be- can we stand any more of ‘Mr. Democracy’ and if not, who is the most likely to show him the door.

  2. Good morning Mr. Wells. May I please see a citation for your claim that Conservatives said Mulcair called various parts of Canada `a disease`?

    • Or you can just easily Google it yourself. It was Heritage Minister James Moore who said “I am wondering when the leader of the Opposition will apologize to Western Canada for suggesting the strength of the Western Canadian economy is a disease on Canada?” Said in the House of Commons Thursday May 17, 2012. There you are.

    • Any day on QP and political panels on major networks. It has officiaL talking point status.

    • When Mulcair was a minister in the Charest gov’t, he even believed that Labrador was a contiguous part of Quebec… and should be claimed as such should Quebec ever decide to separate from Canada.

  3. “The left-of-Conservative vote remains split.”

    Here’s hoping that will continue…..and the Greens will add to it….good to see!

    • So you want the country destroyed by a criminal who stuffed the ballot box? Why?

      • I wouldn’t call Elizabeth May a criminal. Sure, she hijacked the federal parties budget just to get herself elected, but I wouldn’t call that ballot box stuffing.

  4. this is some of the most pedestrian conjecture i’ve read in a long time. congratulations MacLean’s your standards are even lower than the Star’s.

    • He’s trying to think outside the box with some brainstorming to try to predict the future… what’s wrong with that, unless you want to stop things as they are today?!

    • Oh you mean the biggest selling newspaper in Canada, winner of several awards for top-notch investigative journalism?

      • It’s a left-wing rag with zero intellectual diversity.

    • Uh…..lower than the Star’s. Not possible! Unless you include Rabble.Tied would be the Ottawa Citizen and the Edmonton Journal. Truly dreadful publications.

  5. “Maybe Harper is lost in the face of superior opposition”. That is truly wishful thinking. Harper is never lost.

    • Even if Harper is Mackenzie King redux, King lost elections from time to time.

      But the flip side of that is, the Canadian left isn’t necessarily rid of Harper even if he loses in 2015. Could sit out a term in opposition the way King did.

      • Oh Harper is here to stay as long as he wants, I think his biggest obstacle before was his family life but I believe Mrs. Harper has made peace with her husbands role on reshaping this nation IMO.

    • Um, maybe you should look at Harper’s popularity of late.

  6. Outremont actually IS one of the NDP hotbeds in Quebec. It was in the top few ridings for the NDP in Quebec since the 70′s

    • Yes, but the SEAT itself was held by the Liberal’s for a number of years, which is what was more or less being specified. There very well might have been a large number of NDP supports and voters in Outremont, but not enough to win the riding until 2007.

  7. Correction: The riding of Whitby-Oshawa isn’t represented by Colin Carrie, it’s Jim Flaherty. The riding of Oshawa is represented by Colin Carrie.

  8. Harper said years ago that he wanted a clear-cut choice between left and right at the federal level….in the belief that no sane person would vote left, so the right-wing would be in there permanently. Liberals just muddied the choice with their centrism and compromise so they had to go.

  9. Who is Thomas (Tom in the RoC) Mulcair, and what does he represent?

    We know he was a Liberal cabinet minister in the Charest gov’t until they had a falling out and he quit. We know he approached the federal Conservatives and would join them if he was given a cabinet position. He was rejected by Harper. Then he offered his prostitute political services to Layton, who was not particular who ran for office in Quebec as long as it was a warm body. Mulcair was elected twice in Outremont riding in Montreal.

    We also know that he is a Quebec lawyer based on the French Civil Code of jurisprudence and enforcing the French language when he worked for the Quebec department of Legislative Affairs. He also hold French citizenship together with his wife, a French citizen, and his two sons.

    We also know he is a devout Roman Catholic, a staunch supporter of Israel, and a pro-lifer. We can conclude that his life as a liberal socialist began when he joined the NDP. He now leads a Quebec caucus of 59 NDP MPs as his power base to control the NDP agenda.

    Mulcair has never been seen without a full facial beard.

    • I should have also pointed out that Mulcair as a federal party leader follows a long line of RC lawyers from Quebec …. Trudeau.. Mulroney.. Chretien.. Martin.

      • I’m sure there’s supposed to be something bad about him being a Catholic from Quebec…

      • What are the chances there will be a long line of economist PM’s from Alberta?

        • We’ve yet to have one, despite claims to the contrary…

      • Just try to sell another RC lawyer from Quebec to Ontarians or out West… where only the Dipper deviates and crazed haters will vote NDP.

        • Stop spinning, you are going to hurt yourself. Don’t worry, you will still be able to vote for Dean Del Mastro.

    • He studied both civil and common law.

      • Yah, sure… but it’s still the Napoleonic Code in Quebec.

        • What’s you point?

    • Observant, you state that Tom Mulcair is a devout Roman Catholic, a staunch supporter of Israel, and a pro-lifer. You should be supporting him.
      One’s can have personal religious beliefs and be a member of the NDP. There are also people who call themselves pro-lifers and are member of the NDP. The thing is that they are pro-lifers for themselves. They are pro-choice for others in society. As Mr. Mulcair being a staunch supporter of Israel, even the strongest critics of Israel can still be staunch supporters of Israel. Mr. Mulcair and members of the NDP can support the right of Israel to exist while ensuring the rights of Palestinians to a meaningful state of their own. Personally, I don’t think that the biggest threat to Israel comes from the Arab and/or Muslim countries. The biggest threat to Israel comes from the Israelis themselves. What kind of Israel do Israelis want? And what will they accept?
      You may not want to vote for Mr. Mulcair because he has a beard. That’s your choice. I won’t vote for Harper because he looks like he wears a toupee.

  10. Yawn,three years until an election,until then everything is wishfull thinking and conjecture.

  11. Could it be that Harper wants to run against Mulcair and the NDP? With the Liberals taking a portion of the left vote, and the NDP with policies that most Canadians will reject, it will be good for the Conservitives? The longer Mulcair has the national stage, the greater the chances he will say things that turn off Canadians. Time is probably on Harpers side. . .

    • Exactly. Harper can sit back, let Mulcair say all kinds of stupid things, and slowly, analytically, decide which side to attack from. Why spend money attacking him now, when he’s doing it to himself for free? Every time Tom opens his mouth he’s uttering something idiotic. Harper also knows that in the run-up to an election, the NDP will have 10% of the money to spend in comparison to the CPC. All of the attacks have been run against Harper, and none has stuck. All he needs to do is keep himself out of trouble, and the rest will take care of itself.

      • Wait until he starts dumping money into Quebec to get votes.

      • All he needs to do is keep himself out of trouble, and the rest will take care of itself.
        >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

        Harper’s big mouth and his bulldog Baird do not know what keeping themselves out of trouble mean. Contempt of Parliament, election fraud, blatant lies and why has Harper never told us where the money came from to support him in 2004 and how much is still likely illegal support. People, with Harper is that he is nothing but a dicator spreading his propaganda and his paid troll parrots lie down and still worship him. brain washed to the fullest and they are so brain dead that they don’t even realize that they are being used not for their brains but for their lack of common sense.

          • Teflon degrades over time. I’ve never had a skillet last more than 5 years and then all you can do with them is throw it out.

          • He thinks his shit doesn’t stink.

  12. I think it’s much simpler than Paul’s analysis. I think the CPC is just going to sit back and let Mulcair rack up soundbites, and then when the game’s really on (ie. closer to an election), spend the cash on attacking him from every possible angle. It seems almost every time Tom opens his mouth these days he’s saying something that’s offending someone. They may not be getting much play now, but guaranteed they will when the writ drops. As far as being “attackable”, Mulcair is a way bigger target than Iggy or Dion ever were, and look what happened to them! With his majority, I think Harper is also more concerned with day-to-day governing than politics right now. He knows the game better than most. He has a limited period of time to implement his hidden agenda ™, and he knows that. He probably doesn’t want to bother himself with the petty party politics right now…. that can wait until the buzzer sounds again.

    • Love the hidden agenda ,Trade Marked. Have a T-shirt that says “I am a conservative…….Ask me about my hidden agenda”

    • Rick Omen’s analysis is on the money: Mulcair’s comments have already provided the cons with a rich target, and one anticipates his providing even more fodder as time goes by. Mulcair is already dead in the West with his ill-advised comments, and has little traction outside of Quebec.

  13. In the last election, Harper’s strategy was to associate the Liberals with the “socialist and separatists” in a coalition. What he got was even better: a fight with the “socialists” themselves. So Harper’s game plan is to have a repeat in 2015.

    But it won’t be that easy considering there won’t be the same level of panic among right-leaning voters against an NDP-led government, and few will still consider Harper a “moderate” choice.

    The greatest danger is the fact that full conservative support is 38% (30% core + 8% red Tory) and a fake majority is at 39%. If the Cons get a likable leader they will be poised to win many majorities changing Canada beyond recognition.

    The only way to stop them is for the NDP and Liberals to legislate Instant Runoff Voting if they form a minority in 2015. This is a modernization of our existing (Westminster-style) system that simply requires MPs earn their seats with majority support. It stops vote-splitting 100% and radicals from getting absolute power that a vast majority is opposed to.

  14. Oooh interesting theory. CPC and NDP can dominate the political front for many years to come but LPC is in Canada’s DNA just like for example the Monarchy, you can’t make it disappear. However, I fully support a little lesson for the LPC on humility and learning to appreciate the privilege that is to govern a country and learn from scratch to do it right.

    • You are HOT! Good post too.

      • Haha thanks!

  15. Two points:

    1. It is more difficult for the Conservatives to define Mulcair for the public than it was with Dion or Ignatieff. A major part of the attacks on them was painting them as wimpish or effete. This will not be so effective with Mulcair who is both better known and conspicuously tough. He is much more verbally adept than the others (witness how Harper avoids confronting him in the Commons). As well he looks physically formidable. His nickname is “Grizzly” and it fits.

    2. It may not be wise for the Conservatives to want an electorate polarized between the NDP and them. A series of recent polls shows that the NDP is by far the second choice of Liberal voters. Most “Blue Liberals” already switched to the Conservatives last election and their remaining vote is more progressive and more inclined to switch to the NDP. Bloq and Green voters prefer the NDP by even greater margins, 3 or 4 to one, over the Conservatives.

  16. I think the Pundits are wrong.
    Mulclair will looooose huge numbers. the NDP gain is not his but jacks. Tom doesn’t light a candle to jack and he has no wow factor. Every one will be saying the NDP will do well in the next election. And from what I see, I see a major loss for the NDP.

  17. Mulcair is defining himself very well with out input from the Conservatives. Mulcair, on his own has shown in his own words and actions:

    - the west is not important

    - unions are has been, green is in

    - an NEP2 or carbon tax is going to happen if he forms government

    - all taxes are going to go up

    - we do not need another PM from Quebec that has limited support in
    Ontario and the East coast but virtually no support in the West.

    - he would send billions to help the richest nations on earth (who do
    not have the will to do what they need to do because it would show that
    all their promises were lies)

    - look at Europe today, that would be Canada after 5 years of Mulcair and NDP rule.

    Mulcair has put both feet in his mouth all by himself.

  18. Harper might be expecting a relapse of many polled NDPers, back to the Liberals. He’s going to be nudging against one, and then against the other, the best way he can, to split that vote.

  19. Working class voters support Conservative. Those working class folks then deserve all the Conservative programs targetted at them.

  20. Most people still know nothing about Mulcair. The attack ads will come. No rush.

  21. Tom Mulcair is a threat to Stephen Harper. It’s not because Mr. Mulcair will somehow unite the left. It’s because he will take votes away from Harper.
    I do think that Paul Wells is correct with Mr. Mulcair going after the urban-environmentalist vote rather than the “rust-belt” union vote. The latter is on a slow decline. It doesn’t mean that unionism is dying. It’s just that depending on the union-vote is not a sure thing for the NDP. On the other hand, “urban-environmentalist” is a frame for attracting votes from people who are fairly well-educated. It means describing a vision of the country that Canadians can understand and accept. It also means that Tom Mulcair will go after the votes of current intelligent Conservative supporters by using economic discourse to explain the direction that Tom Mulcair wants to take the country.

  22. Mulcair is a Red Oni (hair-trigger temper). Layton was a Blue Oni (cool as a cucumber). Harper is deathly terrified of the Blue Oni, but not the least bit frightened of the Red. Time is on Harper’s side, not on Mulcair’s.

  23. It is a bit premature to talk about PM Harper’s retirement. Perhaps when he is closing in on Mackenzie King’s record of service . . .

  24. Mr. Wells wrote this article too soon!

    The author must have missed tv watching on July 1st. Specifically, repeated Conservative advertising during the BC evening movie, “The Mask” on Channel 13 was used to viciously attack Mulcair and the NDP party.

    I guess with all the cutbacks taxpayers are enduring, there is extra cash in Revenue Canada coffers available to Conservatives for spreading hate messages.

  25. Give it just little time folks; you will see Harper out campaigning for Justin Trudeau! He knows Mulcair is correct and on target on his attacks. This being the case the positions are indefensible.

    But, wait! They will try the “Strategic ” vote again, roping Trudeau into the mix.

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