Thomas Mulcair is supposed to be on a charm offensive.
Since taking the helm of the NDP, the bearded Beaconsfieldian has done much to make himself and his party more electable. He bled the NDP constitution of the word ‘socialism’, started saying words like “entrepreneur” and “middle class” a whole lot, and punted the party’s pesky far-left fringes. On the personal front, Mulcair has buttoned his renowned temper, something a Quebec NDP higher-up told me came as a result of a “concerted effort” from both the party and Mulcair himself.
The results have been impressive. The party maintained relatively solid PJE (Pre-Justin Era) numbers—a remarkable feat for a party that lost Jack Layton, its most successful leader, at the height of his popularity. In Quebec, where most politicos and commentators figured the orange crush would fade as quickly as it came, Mulcair has remained well ahead of the Bloc Québécois and the PJE Liberals nearly two years after the federal election. Dippers approved of him to the resounding tune of 93.2 per cent during the recent convention in Montreal. Having shed (or at least closeted) his dreaded Hulk persona, Tom is more often seen looking rested and pleasant. He has every reason to be as much.
Which is why Mulcair’s recent Supreme Court sortie is all the more perplexing. The details—I’ll be quick, so as to avoid narcolepsy—go like this: a fellow wrote a book suggesting former (and very dead) Supreme Court Justice Bora Laskin leaked details of judicial proceedings regarding the repatriation of the constitution to the Liberal government of the time. Predictably, the news caused a near-riot in certain Quebec circles, with much of the province’s politicos, commentators and the National Assembly calling for an investigation. Mulcair quickly joined in. “What we’re doing is standing up foursquare in defence of the independence of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Canadians are entitled to have a full answer to these important questions.”
Should there be an investigation? I haven’t the foggiest. Smarter people than I have wondered out loud whether such a thing is merited. What I find weird is how Mulcair’s dive into ancient constitutional matters flies in the face of his own and his party’s studied, deliberate makeover. The cliché, and it applies here, is that Quebec-related constitutional chatter seriously annoys Canadians outside of Quebec. Were this only the case, Mulcair could arguably say he’s placating his power base in Quebec. But there’s a second, not-at-all unexpected part of the equation: Quebecers themselves seemingly don’t care about constitutional matters.
Beyond the PQ government and Quebec’s cloistered nationalist set, the Laskin Affair (it barely deserves capital letters) has barely even registered in the province. “In Quebec, after one week, you’d have to do a top 200 search of the headlines to find it,” Jean-François Dumas, of the media monitoring firm Influence Communication, told me. This so irked Le Devoir’s Michel David that he penned a column lamenting Quebecer’s distinct lack of fury. “It’s springtime, the Canadiens are in the playoff, it’s time to move on to other things, no?” He asked, tongue jammed into his cheek. Mulcair should take the advice. In taking on the legitimacy of an ancient Supreme Court decision, the NDP leader has seemingly managed to find the one issue that irritates Canadians and bores Quebecers in equal measure.
And it isn’t the first time. Just this winter Mulcair challenged that other dull thud, the Clarity Act, by pushing for a 50-per-cent-plus-one threshold for Quebec separation. Mulcair was duly thumped at the time, and we haven’t heard anything on the subject since.
The question is: why does Tom Mulcair keep straying from the script of a perfectly effective makeover? Is he trying to appeal to would-be Bloc Québécois voters? If so, he shouldn’t. The Bloc is in deep trouble, even beyond its dismal poll numbers: never a fundraising powerhouse, it will arguably suffer the most once the per-vote subsidy is fully eliminated in 2015. Is he worried about hanging on to Quebec’s (inherently nationalist) lefty vote? Maybe, but with the Bloc hobbled, the NDP’s real fight in Quebec is with the Liberals. And any Quebecer reconsidering the Liberals isn’t likely going to care a hoot about the Constitution, 50-percent-plus-one or anyone named Bora Laskin.
I can’t help but think that Mulcair’s flights of fancy are a product of another aspect of his personality, the one in which he lashes out at whatever he deems a threat. If this is the case, then Hulkair clearly has his blinkered eyes on Justin Trudeau. He sees what everyone else sees: that the Constitution business—a vestige of Trudeau père—dovetailed with Justin Trudeau’s rise to the Liberal throne, making it plunderable political fodder. Hulkair must see how the Conservatives have all but dropped Mulcair from their sights—when was the last time you saw a Mulcair attack ad?—focusing instead on the inexperienced leader of a third party that was supposedly on its deathbed not two years ago. He sees how the polls suggest Justin has stunted the NDP’s ascendancy.
Hulkair sees, and Hulkair smashes. Pity that poor charm offensive.