Our federal leaders are ghosts of premiers past

Paul Wells on why Tom Mulcair sounds a lot like Jean Charest


Fred Chartrand/CP

Turns out the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is some guy named Tom Mulcair, and apparently his “New Democratic Party” has nearly three times as many MPs as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Who knew? You can read all about the NDP leader in the new Maclean’s ebook, Justin!: Justin Justin Trudeau Trudeau Trudeau. We’re sure there’s something about old what’s-his-name in there somewhere.

My press gallery colleagues were reminded of Mulcair’s existence this week when the NDP leader denounced the Supreme Court’s cursory investigation into its own behaviour 33 years ago. A new book by a Quebec historian, Frédéric Bastien, quotes archival documents from the United Kingdom to assert that two former Supremes, then-chief justice Bora Laskin and his colleague Willard Estey, discussed the Constitution’s repatriation with Canadian and British officials in 1980. Bastien sees this as proof of collusion across the wall that should separate judges from legislators, and therefore as proof that Canada’s Constitution is illegitimate. He notes that the paperwork he received from Canada’s government was heavily edited. More proof!

In reality, the top court’s patriation reference opinion did not say what Pierre Trudeau wanted it to say. If Laskin and Trudeau were conspiring, they were really bad at it. But details like that are not enough to shake off a dedicated conspiracy theorist.

The top court announced it would look into the matter. Several days later the Supremes announced they’d come up with nothing. Mulcair was unamused. “It’s a clear indication that the Supreme Court had no intention of ever dealing with this issue seriously,” he said. “The first thing that one would have expected the Supreme Court to do is to ask for the full version” of the ancient government documents Bastien received in redacted form, “read them, and start an investigation.”

“Mulcair’s Supreme Court gambit is a Bloc Québécois move,” Jonathan Kay wrote in the National Post. “What kind of ‘federalist’ intentionally stokes up obsolete, three-decade-old Québécois grievances?”

Kay’s been away from Montreal too long. What kind of federalist sides with the Bloc Québécois on pointless grievances? In Quebec the answer is, “All the federalists.”

It is neither fair to Mulcair nor analytically useful to equate him with the Bloc Québécois. It is closer to the truth to say he never really left the Quebec Liberal party. He used to serve as a cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s provincial government, and while he quit that job in a huff, to know how Mulcair will react on a given issue it is still usually enough to ask how Charest would react in his place.

Mulcair is suspicious of Alberta oil, except insofar as it can be coaxed eastward through Quebec. He is worried about central Canadian manufacturing decline. He is comfortable with higher taxes than most Canadians have lately been paying. He is sensitive to insults in a narrow spectrum of frequencies only Le Devoir editorialists can hear. It is true that Charest’s heart beats well to the right of most New Democrats’—but since Mulcair’s own heart cannot be located by search teams with bloodhounds, the distinction is trivial.

You might argue that a narrow provincial focus is improper for a leader of a national party, but Mulcair-Charest has company. Ralph Klein’s death in March has helped reinforce the impression that Stephen Harper is governing the country much as Klein would have, if the late Alberta premier had found himself teleported to Ottawa.

Last year Harper called Calgary “the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.” He views petroleum exports as the best card in Canada’s economic hand and regards any government-imposed price on carbon as a menace. He botched his attempt to speed the Northern Gateway pipeline’s passage west because it never occurred to him that British Columbia is this whole other province. Last month he told the National Health Council its funding won’t be renewed after the organization turns 10. Klein walked out of the 2003 Ottawa meeting where Jean Chrétien created the health council, calling it federal interference in provinces’ business. Harper is implementing Klein’s revenge. As a bonus he holds as many first-ministers’ meetings in a year as Klein would have: zero.

But surely one leader has a truly national vision? Nope. Don’t think of Justin Trudeau as his father’s son. Squint a little and you’ll see him as the post-retirement reincarnation of Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty. Trudeau’s leadership campaign was run by old Queen’s Park hands like Katie Telford and Gerald Butts. His manner is the same shucks-golly mien Ontario’s Premier Dad affected. Trudeau shot his first campaign ad in that bastion of provincial jurisdiction, a middle-school classroom. In the 2003 campaign, McGuinty signed a gimmicky—and, in the end, wholly bogus—pledge not to raise taxes. Trudeau has hinted in interviews he’ll make a comparable pledge.

The 2003 campaign, of course, was McGuinty’s second. He lost in 1999. He told federal Liberals at their 2012 convention they should seek a leader young enough to live with disappointment for a few years. Liberals tend to forget that part of his speech. Nobody handicapping the 2015 elections should.

On the web: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells


Our federal leaders are ghosts of premiers past

  1. The great curse of Canadian politics – ambitious provincially minded politicians playing to their narrow base[ often cynically and dishonestly]. Is it their fault, or is it simply the mould they are forced into if they want to win and make sure the other guy loses? Ten little fiefdoms[is it still 10?] not all equal of course, but all demanding tribute of some kind, or they’ll piss in the national soup next time it comes around. I think i can even understand why the late Trudeau called them all a very bad word, probably more than once.

    So, was Trudeau senior an aberration really? A benchmark or highwater mark for a national vision in this country? One we aren’t likely to see again. A freak. A stone through a stained glass window as some wag once said? Whereas the norm is rather a handfull of pebbles rattling off the outhouse roof.

    I’m not sure has to be this way. Lougheed and a few of his generation of leaders showed that politics can be played both nationally and provincially with honour. Seems to me there’s always a choice, you can either play down to your base or drag your base [often kicking and screaming] along for the ride. The latter is real leadership IMV.

  2. NDP is a joke, i hope no one in there right minds vote for them…

    • Another semi-literate (right wing?) commenter who can’t differentiate spellings between the simple, common words “their” & “there” , spellings one would think should be understood by an average 4th grader. Actually, in your one line post you make at least three obvious errors, as your post should read “…no one in THEIR right MIND VOTES…” Only if English happens to be your second language should you deserve any sympathy or slack!

      • Pedantic, but that’s OK, I don’t mind voting for they.

  3. “Don’t think of Justin Trudeau as his father’s son. Squint a little and you’ll see him as the post-retirement reincarnation of Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty.”

    That might be the single harshest condemnation of Trust Fund Trudeau that I’ve read yet.

    • It’s also an off hand judgement. I doubt Wells spent the day agonizing over it. More likely he needed to squeeze it into the space left in his narrative. It’s what jounalists do… So im told. Nothing is written . So I wouldn’t get so overwrought about it if I were you. JTs still pretty much a blank slate. It’s just the danger is there. Hopefully for his sake he doesn’t surround himself exclusively with ex DM aides.
      Edit: hmmm, well I can see maybe it wasn’t so offhand. Just where and when did he make this no new taxes pledge? I missed it? Surely we aren’t simply talking about the gst are we? ( don’t agree with him there. Pretty much the same kind of good politics over good policy none sense that Harper pulled.. ‘Cept harpers the one who has to carry the political baggage for it.)

  4. I would simply note that the narrow provincial focus of Harper and Mulcair are reflected in their policy positions. While Trudeau, according to Wells, is stylistically similar to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. That’s an important distinction. Trudeau’s promise not to raise the taxes of (all) Canadians is not analogous Harper’s Alberta-centric or Mulcair’s Quebec-centric leadership. So lumping Trudeau in with Harper’s decentralized vision and Mulcair’s asymmetric vision, and arguing that he too lacks a national vision is not supported by evidence Wells provides in this piece.

    • I’m going to make a wild guess that you live in Ontario.

      • Quebec. But do you honestly think that Trudeau’s promise not raise taxes is sufficient evidence to accuse him of not having a national vision and compare him to Harper and Mulcair and their narrow provincial focus?

        • IMO, Trudeau is still a big-time question mark. Not much has changed on that front from when he was campaigning for the LPC leadership.

        • I’m with you and agin PW on this one. How is sucking up to the M/C…er, running on a ticket of growing and re-energizing the m/c in any way provincially centric, or lacking in national vision? Don’t they have m/c in other parts of the country too?

  5. Thank you for bringing back the attention to Mulcair following the tedious and boring media infatuation with Justin! I couldn’t help but note that Harper was in Quebec City criticizing Mulcair over the SCC repatriation reference of the 1980s while at same time Trudeau was in Alberta criticizing Mulcair over Keystone XL. Mulcair has struggled of late to get the media’s attention after the Justin! launch, and now has succeeded only to reveal that there is a Harper-Trudeau “coalition of interests” ie, Harper will criticize Mulcair in Quebec to help Trudeau while Trudeau will criticize Mulcair in Alberta to help Harper. The window to do this is narrow and now with Stanley Cup playoffs (and upcoming Vancouver riots??) on, the federal political scene will go dark…
    I believe that the political objective for Harper and Trudeau in 2015 is this: re-election of a strong Conservative majority with Liberals as Official Opposition but with strength in Quebec. NDP and Greens would be leftist fringe and ideally Bloc Quebecois would be extinct. This would be an excellent result for Canada.

    • You’re dreaming. If the liberal membership ever found out that JT was explicitly gunning only for OO status, while intentionally handing Harper another 5 years as chief banana, they would lynch even him, Trudeau or not.

      And you seem to think Harper will easily ditch his life’s fondest dream – the end of the LPC, and the end of the Trudeau dynastic aspirations as an added bonus.

      This is SH we are talking about, not some big picture long term pragmatist like WLMK.

      Although i wouldn’t put it past him to take such a deal if it was thrust on him as an inevitability. Beating up on this particular Liberal leader from the security of the govt side of the House might well have its advantages.But that would be plan B at best.

      But as i said, no shared objective or squeeze play could possibly be in the cards. Trudeau has his base to play to also.

      • I disagree. The “Harper wants to destroy Liberals” is a media myth designed to sell newspapers. Trudeau wants to be treated as Opposition Leader, and Harper does so. This was the purpose of the Conserative ads. They were a compliment to Trudeau. This enrages Mulcair, who sees a threat to his legitimacy as alternative government. The natural order of things is alternation between Conservatives and Liberals.
        Conservatives are invincible in the West and very strong in Ontario vis-a-vis the Liberals, but are weak in Quebec. The Liberals only key to survival (and eventual return to governmnent) rests in re-capturing Quebec electorally. But Mulcair (and to lesser extent Paille) stands in the way. 2015 will be the determining moment for seeing if the Liberals come back in Quebec and displace the NDP. It is in Harpers interest that a federalist party prevail in Quebec, not crypto-separatist parties like NDP and Bloc.

        • lol…pull the other one.Whatever you’re smoking is working..

          • I think anyone can see that a Liberal renaissance is impossible whilst there is a strong NDP, especially in Quebec. So overcoming the NDP is Justin’s Job 1. To accomplish this he has to garner some of the “jobs-growth-prosperity” credibility of the Harper Government in order to contrast with NDP job- and prosperity-killing policies. Hence Justin T will support Harper on Keystone XL, foreign takeovers by China and the oilsands generally.

            If it wasn’t for Sponsorship we would now be into Year 10 of the Paul Martin Government whose economic policies would be probably very similar to Harper’s today. Harper has learned the basic lesson of Canadian national politics – Canadians want Liberal government but without the corruption. It will take a huge corruption scandal to bring down the Conservatives, which doesn’t seem likely. Mini- and faux-scandals du jour will not do it, these merely entertain a bored media. Justin T. is young and both he and the Liberals will need to be patient, it might take 2 or 3 or more elections to come back to Government. In the meantime,continue to get the reputation of “government party” back by supporting the Harper government on key economic issues like Keystone XL. The Liberals are not the Official Opposition, they don’t have to oppose or obstruct everything. Use this advantage.

          • I don’t disagree with most of that ; although it isn’t at all clear to me JT will ape Martin as much as a much younger Chretien , or even more his dad, but without all the statist largely failed economic policies of that time. But there won’t be any grand bargain( certainly not at this point) with the CPC. Now if Harper was to bow out for some reason, it might get interesting depending on which faction won the leadership.
            Obviously JT is going to have to try and run over the NDP to get to Harper, but they’re gunning for him if they can get him.
            It may be true harpers ideal was liberalism without the corruption. But Trudeau’s mantra will be liberalism without all the anti democratic nonesense that Harper thinks is needed to keep out corruption, at the price of open accountable govt. Personally I’ll take a little more corruption if that’s the price of real democracy.
            What’s really needed of course is for us to stop handing govts false majorities for 10 to 12 years…or at the least find a way to empower opposition parties[ more importantly involve the whole of Parliament in the accountability process again] by making the committee process meaningful once more, rather than what it is now – a fig leaf and rubber stamp for the govt.

          • Like you I don’t think there will be any grand bargain, I am just saying that Harper’s and Trudeau’s interests intersect. Long-term, for Trudeau to regain Liberal brand as one of 2 “natural governing parties” he has to convince Canadians that the NDP is a left-wing protest party only and cannot be trusted with Government. Short-term, JT has to overcome Mulcair’s strength in Quebec by somehow convincing former BQ voters to switch from NDP to Liberals. This will be tough as Mulcair has greater appeal to separatists and soft-federalists. But maybe JT’s charisma alone can convince 1000s of Quebeckers who were swept up by Laytonmania (and suffering from Duceppe-fatigue) to give the Sponsorship-tainted Liberals and their old-fashioned federalism another chance. We shall see in 2.5 years. But Harper has to be pleased that 2015 election will be about 2 (3 with Paille?) Montreal MPs fighting for dominance in Quebec.

          • Maybe. But personally i think he’s gunning for both guys. But you’re right, the liberals badly need to reestablish a regional base somewhere. Presumably it will overlap ON & QC.
            As the new guy on the block both those guys give him a good deal of ammo to load up on. Mulcair’s blunders have been particularly strange given he’s an experienced politician. I never expected him to lose it so soon.

  6. I’m not quite sure what Wells is getting at here. I don’t think Mulcair & Trudeau have much in common with Charest & McGuinty in terms of personality & campaign style.

    Mulcair reminds me more of Michael Ignatieff – someone who may be smart, but who has trouble connecting with voters. Trudeau is more like Jack Layton or Jean Chretien – someone who has the charisma & ability to connect with ordinary people. The fact that some of McGuinty’s staff work for Trudeau is largely irrelevant. McGuinty has very little in common with Trudeau’s personality or style since he is much more introspective & serious and not charismatic.

    Wells may certainly be right that Trudeau will not win his first election (afterall his party is in 3rd place & it will be tough to go to 1st that quickly), but I’m not sure if Mulcair is going to win the next election either. Mulcair lacks the natural ability to connect with voters that Jack Layton had.

    • More importantly, Mulcair has demonstrated time after time that he’s only interested in representing Quebec separatists – not regular Canadians, nor those of us in Quebec who are actually loyal to Canada.

  7. Stephen Harper is a policy wonk, with his fingerprints on every file.

    During Ralph Klein’s eulogy, Mike Harris told of their interactions at a first minister’s meeting. Ralph urged the fellow premiers to cut the crap, decide what they agree on, and call it a day – so that they could go fishing or play golf.

    Lame analogy.

  8. – Last year Harper called Calgary “the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.”

    I haven’t been there so I can’t really say anything bad, but I suggest Harper goes outside of Canada a bit before commenting on what’s the greatest city in the world.

    • I think the point was people really like to hear that in their own city…needn’t be true of course. I think Saskatoon’s better myself. But then I rarely like really big cities, with the exception of Vancouver (used to like Edmonton before the boom) and even then I wouldn’t choose to live there if I can just visit.
      The beauty of Canada is that we still have livable medium sized cities with pretty good facilities and social life. Sadly both Edmonton and probably Calgary are less livable than they were 10 or 15 years ago before the current boom. I guess the key is to move there at the beginning of the boom and ride the best of it while you can.

  9. I’m going to earn some downvotes here, but the problem exists because Canada isn’t really a country.

    It’s a bunch of Native American land and European colonies cobbled together by the British out of what remained of their North American territories.

    Coastal British Columbia was initially settled by the English and has far more in common with Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Northern California culturally, than with PEI.

    Central BC, the Yukon, the NWT, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were mostly settled much later than other parts of Canada, by the Metis, Ukrainians, Eastern European Germans, Lebanese and Scandinavians rather than the British. Settling happened largely at the turn of the 20th century. In the north of all these provinces Dene culture also hold sway. Culturally they have more in common with Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas (although Newfoundland and the Philippines are beginning to have a major influence), than Ontario.

    Ontario was settled by the British and is part of the Midwestern United States culturally, economically and socially, just not politically.

    Quebec is as unique as Mexico from the rest of North America.

    The Maritimes and New England evolved together.

    Newfoundland is Ireland’s western incarnation. The worst thing to happen to Newfoundland was joining confederation.

    Because of these differences we can either put up with political power jumping around from Quebec to the West and back again with Ontario as the deciding factor, or we can try to force greater (and artificial) cultural integration.