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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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