Mulcair’s not-so-secret weapon

Paul Wells on an inconvenient complicating detail in the Great Harper-Trudeau Showdown of 2015



There’s an inconvenient complicating detail in the Great Stephen Harper-Justin Trudeau Showdown of 2015. His name is Tom Mulcair, his New Democratic Party still holds 98 seats in the House of Commons and, the other day, he dropped a big hint about how the 2015 election will go. Almost nobody caught the hint. Let’s take another look.

Mulcair has not had an easy time of things. He is still the leader of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. But, outside the Commons chamber, where he is a formidable slugger, Mulcair has a hard time getting traction. The NDP has suffered a steady trickle of defections—one MP went to the Bloc Québécois, one to the Liberals, one to the Greens, one to sit as an Independent. Olivia Chow quit to run for the Toronto mayoralty; the NDP lost her seat in the resulting by-election. Liberal MP Denis Coderre quit to run for mayor of Montreal; the NDP could not pick up Coderre’s riding, even though it’s right next door to Mulcair’s Outremont fief. The party is third in every national poll. Mulcair doesn’t shine in reflected light from the memory of Jack Layton; he’s eclipsed.

He keeps showing up. On Aug. 20, he spoke to the general council of the Canadian Medical Association. He had a few topics on his mind.

He talked about the Harper government’s cuts to veterans’ service centres. “Earlier this year, I wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to make military suicides and mental health a personal priority. He never bothered to respond.” He mentioned marijuana precisely once, so, of course, most of the day’s headlines were about marijuana.

He also announced a plan to send billions of dollars a year out of Ottawa to provincial governments. Billions more than Harper, even. It was the kind of big directional policy announcement we sometimes complain we’re not getting from our party leaders. But it contained words of several syllables, and he also compared pot to oregano, so, well . . .

Here’s what he said: “After promising to protect all future increases to provincial transfers, Conservatives announced plans to cut $36 billion, starting in 2016,” Mulcair told the CMA. “This spring, Conservatives will announce, with great fanfare, that there is now a budget surplus. I’m here today to tell you that an NDP government would use any such surplus to, first and foremost, cancel those proposed cuts to health care.”

This needs parsing, but first, let’s let Mulcair finish: “Mr. Harper, it’s time to keep your word to protect Canadian health care. After giving Canada’s richest corporations $50 billion in tax breaks, don’t you dare take $36 billion out of health care to pay for them!” He said that part in English, then repeated it in French, which has become the way a Canadian politician delivers a line in italics.

Well. Let’s begin with the $36 billion. In December 2011, Jim Flaherty, then the federal finance minister, met his provincial colleagues to announce his plans for health transfers after a 10-year deal set by Paul Martin ran out in 2013-14. The 2004 Martin deal declared that cash transfers to the provinces for health care would increase by six per cent a year for 10 years. Harper simply kept implementing the Martin scheme after he became Prime Minister.

What Flaherty announced, without consulting with the provinces first, was that health transfers would keep growing at six per cent through 2016-17. Then, they would grow more slowly—how slowly would depend on the economy. The faster GDP grows, the faster transfers would grow. But, if the economy tanked, the rate of growth could fall as low as three per cent per year. Flaherty said this scheme would stay in place through 2023-24.

Add up all the shortfalls between three per cent and six per cent over seven years and you get a cumulative sum of $36 billion. Despite what Mulcair said, this isn’t a “cut,” it’s a deceleration in increases. And $36 billion is the gap’s maximum amount. If the economy shows any health, the gap will be smaller.

We could have fun complaining that Mulcair calls something a “cut” when it extends what is already the longest period of growth in federal transfer payments in Mulcair’s lifetime. But it’s more fun to take him at his word. He promises to spend as much as $6 billion a year in new tax money on health care. Mulcair couldn’t buy much influence over health policy with that money; he would simply send larger cheques to provincial governments. If he has other plans for the federal government, he’d have to pay for them after he’d sent that up-to $6-billion cheque to the provinces.

How would he afford it? He’s sworn not to increase anyone’s personal income taxes. That leaves the “$50 billion” in corporate tax cuts he complained about. In short, Mulcair is calling for a very substantial further decentralization in Canadian federalism, funded, perhaps, out of a major reversal in corporate tax cuts.

In important ways, this would actually continue the hard work Harper has done, restricting any federal government’s ability to run new programs out of Ottawa. Of course, it would: Mulcair, like Harper, grew up in a province whose elites mistrust the federal government.

The 2015 election will, or should, turn on big questions about Ottawa’s role in an era of economic uncertainty and aging populations. Tom Mulcair has begun to propose his answers. He is, in other words, doing his job.


Mulcair’s not-so-secret weapon

  1. Tom Mulcair and Steve Harper is what I call cargo, just waiting to be shipped out of Ottawa come October 2015. Two parties caught in scandals like the cons and dippers are going to have a time to dig themselves out before the next election. It’s going to be about character and trust, not policies or numbers. Voters don’t trust Harper anymore and he may never gain it back, their not sure if they want to even trust Mulcair(he acts too much like the character ‘ Uriah Heep ‘ in the dickens novel), and if they do, their not sure what they will get(you cant set up party outposts on the taxpayers dime), but Trudeau, Canadians trust and already know him, they see a genuine scandal free leader with a strong team to take them into the next election.

    • Yeah, right. And Shiny pony is going to turn Canada into a basic dictatorship, like the PRC that he so admires.

      There’s a million of these.

      See how it’s not just Libs that can troll?

    • Do you really think that if Trudeau became PM that he was remain squeeky clean and scandal free? If he actually shows up to the Commons that is.

      • Right, left or middle, its best to give any politicain the benefit of the doubt until they show they feel they are above it all. I think Harper, for example, started out pretty squeaky clean – years in power let him think he could do what he wanted.

        As for the snipe about Trudeau not being in the Commons – the Liberals were almost destroyed in the last election – he’s had to go out and shore things up in every corner of the country, raising money, reserrecting the Liberal profile. Even the post partisan Conservative supporter would have to admit that his absences from the Commons aren’t because he’s golfing. He’s worked as hard as anyone – but his work has taken him away from parliament.

        • No some of his absents have been for speaking to charities for a large sum of money. I fine that quite unforgivable.

      • I doubt any PM will have a perfect record. It’s impossible for any government to be perfect, so it’s unlikely Trudeau or Mulcair can be ‘squeaky clean’. Mulcair is already involved in the NDP satellite office controversy. As for Trudeau, he has been away from the House more than Mulcair, but he’s not Official Opposition leader, so doesn’t have the same responsibilities in Question Period.

        • There’s also that little matter of the bribery scandal.

    • It’s too early to make predictions about the next election. Harper is down right now (and perhaps this time it will be for good), but you can never rule him out since he has won 3 times before. Trudeau is doing well, but has a lot of seats to win back after the Iggy wipeout. Mulcair had potential when he became NDP leader, but he has lost a lot of it. He needed to be beating Harper by this point if he wanted to win the next election, and that’s not happening. One can’t rule out Mulcair entirely until we see how Trudeau campaigns in 2015, but Mulcair’s chances of winning the next election are much less than they were in 2012.

  2. The fact that Mulcair is a serious guy with a temper and is an exceptionally talented debater to often leads to the impression that he is strong on policy. On the one hand, he is the most cautious of the current leaders and gives the impression of being tied in knots assessing political ramifications of every statement.

    Granted he has two impossible tasks: to move NDP policy close enough to the centre to win while not alienating the NDP base which has spent their political lives deprecating, and win over ROC without alienating their fragile stronghold in Quebec.

    The result is that his policies wander and then seem to settle in some fairytale land of never-ending contradictions. Most economists tell us that corporations adjust so that increased rates do not translate into the revenues expected, so Mulcair’s policy is on shakey ground that is never-the-less familiar to traditional NDP supporters. The trip to Mulcair’s Htrae occurs when you realize that some of the multinationals are going to respond to this rapidly shifting tax landscape by investing several gazillion dollars in oil sands refinement. Moreover, the combined evisceration of corporate incentives combined with endless, Nordic-like, petro dollars pouring into the country are going to reverse that hollowing out of the traditional Ontario-Quebec manufacturing base.

    Of course, in terms of democratic reform Mulcair is on a more solid footing. He has two approaches to getting rid of the Senate. One impossible, the second illegal.

    • We all know Harper’s secret weapons….His economic and his job action plans, that never make it off the billboard of Hockey Night in Canada, year after dreary year.

      Mulcair is said to be, the best leader of the opposition Canada has ever had. I also read, Mulcair is the most intelligent of the lot. However, Mulcair really has a tough row to hoe.

      Depending if Harper can buy up enough ethnic votes, to defeat Trudeau? It seems, Trudeau will win the election.

      • Actually, I personally believe it is almost a certainty that Harper will win the next election. It is looking like Mulcair will be spending the next year focused on Trudeau rather than Harper and NDP attacks are particularly effective at damaging the Liberal brand. (Layton was the one who destroyed Ignatieff in the debates)

        In addition, Harper is an experienced and effective campaigner, incumbent MP’s typically have a big advantage, the Conservative war room is ready and well funded and the Conservative vote is more effectively distributed. However, I don’t believe the Conservatives have any chance at gaining another majority. Harper’s negatives are simply too high.

  3. Unreadable. Not nearly enough sources-speaking-on-

  4. An inconvenient detail is all the title should read. There is no complication factor coming from Mulcair, since pretty much nobody knows who he is to begin with. Personally, I use to vote for the NDP, and I even voted for Mulcair to become Leader during the NDP leadership race. However, I have much regret since I find him to be cold and out of touch with the majority of Canadians. The NDP has managed to lose my support under Mulcair’s leadership. He has managed to rebrand the NDP as Liberal-Lite and therefore I will be supporting Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in the next election. I figure that I might as well vote for the real Liberal Party if the only alternative is a watered down version called the NDP. Atleast Trudeau is willing to take bold policy positions such as calling for the legalization of marijuana. Legalize and tax the sale of marijuana and the formula for health transfers to the provinces will be a moot point since we’ll be swimming in cash. Also, Trudeau is not cold and out of touch with Canadians the way that Mulcair is.

    • What silly Liberal talking points.
      So taxing pot will raise taxes for the $34 BILLION in program promises of the last Liberal convention – when pot review in Colorado is half of what was expected !
      So you – a pretend ex-NDPer who thinks the NDP is not left enough – will vote for Justin who has supported the lowest corporate tax rates in Canada’s history and the two pipeline proposals to export raw bitumen – and good Cdn jobs to the US and China.? Yeh, right!

      • Justin hasn’t had any say over corporate tax rates – he hasn’t even been in power yet, and only just became the leader of the Liberals. Justin is not as to the left as his father on economic policy, that is true. But he is to the left of Harper. The other point is that Mulcair is not that far on the left, either. He used to be a Liberal in Quebec. Both opposition parties are trying to pick up that center vote that went to Harper. But so far, Justin is doing a better job than Mulcair.

        • I think Ron’s point on corporate tax rates is fair, the Liberals are very unlikely to campaign on significantly raising the rate. Most economists do not believe raising corporate tax rates is a sound mechanism for increasing revenues due to the ability of corporations to reconfigure their operations to minimize their taxes. More than anything else, the Liberals will want to be “branded” as the party with evidenced-based policy.

          Of course, Ron might well argue that most economists are in-bed with large corporations esp. the banks.( another fair statement ) However, even Jim Stanford tends to argue for shifting corporate tax incentives towards rewards for corporate investment, rather than attempting to extract more revenue for general programs as Mulcair is proposing.

      • Actually Colorado has more money than they can spend now. Where are you getting YOUR talking points from, Ambrose or Mackay?

      • Taxing pot will raise more money than we are currently spending on combatting organized crime and their marijuana trade. Taxing pot will cause marijuana users to pay for the health care services that they may one day require from consuming said pot. On the other hand, if we continue on the current path or adopt Mulcair’s weak position of simple decriminalization, we will continue spending as if there is no tomorrow, as opposed to raising monies for the public purse. Its simple economics. On this issue alone, Justin wins my support for his strong and bold position.

        Mulcair has said that pipeline development like Keystone XL will eventuality happen, but that he wants to make sure that this development is sustainable. He has fought hard against the Enbridge pipeline, which I admire him for, and he has suggested that we refine our oil here in Canada, which is something else that I can appreciate. But these positions are not sufficient in gaining my vote. These are not the issues that I am talking about around my kitchen table.

        Kitchen table issues is what gets my vote and kitchen table issues were Jack Layton’s forte. That’s why I was an NDP member and voter. Please don’t get me wrong, I agree that the NDP has suggested many policies to help the middle class, but that many of their policy propositions are overly simplistic or equal to what the Liberals are suggesting.

        For example, one policy suggestion by the NDP to help the middle class has been to cap credit card interest rates because they claim that 60% of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque. So instead of tackling the root of the issue, which is that people are not making decent living wages, the NDP’s solution is to cap your credit card interest rate so that you can continue living paycheque to paycheque while still paying interest, albeit a lower interest rate, to large profitable banks and credit card companies. Clearly this policy proposition would only help those of the upper middle class who have the credit rating and who qualify for a credit card in the first place. For me, as a Canadian struggling to get by, living paycheque to paycheque with no credit, it is hard to see how such a policy would be of any help.

        If all that the NDP can offer is an unknown Leader to the majority of Canadians, who generally make’s weak and simplistic policy propositions, then I would prefer to vote Liberal, who are offering a known Leader to the majority of Canadians and who are proposing, if not equal to the NDP, strong and bold policy ideas.

  5. The Liberals commenced the process of cutting federal corporate taxes in the 1990’s and continued their ideology by supporting the tory tax cuts when the natural governing party was the Official Opposition: from about 33% to 15 % in about 18 years.

    In corporate tax policy and oil /pipeline policies (they both support the export of raw bitumen to the US via the XL pipeline and to China via the Kinder -Morgan expansion – and not refine and create jobs here in Canada!) Justin is Harper-lite – except he pretends to be progressive.

    According to CPAC (cable channel hosts) analysing the last Liberal convention they made over $34 BILLION in program promises – with NO mention of how they would pay for them!

    If Justin ever gets down to the serious issues of program priorities and necessary taxation to support them then his weak performance in the House of Commons and foolish gaffes e.g. admiration of Chinese administration, may be forgotten.

    Meanwhile Tom Mulcair is initiating an adult conversation of much-needed priority programs and the means to pay for them in a fair manner.

  6. Mulcair and the NDP are going to end up in their traditional third party status in 2015 and there is nothing he can do about it.

  7. Current polls show Justin Trudeau and the Liberals extending their lead, and some Liberals have even been speaking pretty confidently about a majority in the 2015 election.

    Justin Trudeau’s Liberals aren’t a shoe-in? That’s exactly what Trudeau himself is now saying. His present concern is obviously to guard against overconfidence and complacency in Liberal ranks. An article puffing up Mulcair fits just fine with Trudeau’s strategy.

    • An article puffing up Mulcair fits just fine with Trudeau’s strategy.

      Well, yeah, but it goes so much further than that. Our movie reviews ensure that readers are hypnotized by Hollywood fluff. Advantage Justin. When we write about foreign policy, we make readers want to travel, and Justin Trudeau travels, so he wins by association. Even the name of the magazine has two syllables. You know who else has two syllables in his name? That’s right. Trudeau. This conspiracy is vast, I’m telling you.

    • It’s probably going to be tough for any party to win a majority, actually. Harper is way down from where he was in 2011, and although he still has a good shot at winning a minority, it will he hard to win another majority. The Liberals have a lot of seats to win back and are starting from further back than usual, so it will be hard for them to win a majority. Yes, all parties say they are aiming for a majority, but a Liberal minority is a more realistic outcome. But it also depends on the NDP and whether Mulcair hangs onto a lot of the Quebec seats. If Mulcair does well, he could still hold onto the Official Opposition, even though he may be unlikely to form government.

    • As does the reefer madness demagoguery that makes the Conervatives appear beyond stodgy, but senile, given the latest political developments around the herb.

  8. My reaction to this piece would be to point out that it’s too early for Mulcair to say “how the 2015 election will go”. That’s not something that Mulcair can determine on his own, nor can any of the other leaders. It will depend on the economy, the standings of the parties, the state of world affairs and the way the campaign evolves.

    Many of the issues that Mulcair refers to do not have a lot of electoral traction and don’t usually determine elections. As Wells has written in the past, voters tend to vote based on bread & butter issues and the kitchen table topics that resonate with them, and who best reflects their values. Leaders have to be careful about talking about transfer payments & federal/provincial jurisdiction because they often don’t resonate with ordinary folks. Layton was good at picking issues that related to ordinary voters, and Harper has been able to do so in recent elections, particularly in Ontario. The Liberals under Dion & Ignatieff were not able to do so, but Trudeau so far appears to be doing a better job than Mulcair.

  9. Mulcair was quiet and absent on the BBQ circuit last summer, just like he was this summer, most likely because he was vacationing in France where is also has citizenship. Unlike Mulcair, Jack Layton had many factors playing in his favour. There were two consecutive weak Liberal Leaders in Dion and Ignatieff and voter fatigue towards the Bloc Québecois was starting to surface. Even then, it was looking like the NDP would lose a few seats in the 2011 election, until Jack’s performance in the French televised debate and his appearance on the show ‘Tout le monde en parle’. That was the game-changer that made the orange wave go viral. Will there be another orange wave in Quebec? And, will the NDP manage to make any waves in the rest of Canada? A solid negative is the answer to both of these questions. While I firmly believe that Mulcair will outperform Trudeau in a debate, most soft Liberals that were turned-off by Ignatieff and voted for the NDP will be back to voting for their original brand, and with Justin Trudeau they will be able to do so without pinching their noses. Some have called into question Trudeau’s performance in the House of Commons. In my opinion, his performance is inconsequential because the vast majority of Canadians do not tune-in to Question Period daily like those from the Ottawa political bubble do. Harper will maintain the Conservative base, Trudeau will regain the Liberal base, and Mulcair will be picking-up whatever he can get, putting him and the NDP back into their traditional third place.

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