On Dec. 13, the day after the Commons rose for the Christmas break, CTV’s Don Martin met Thomas Mulcair in Stornaway to talk about the parliamentary season then ending. The big news there was the F-35 procurement audit and the CNOOC/Nexen deal. When the House sits on Monday for the first time in six weeks, I’ll be surprised if either is a big issue. Politics in Canada has moved on, and it feels like we are a lot more than six weeks closer to the next election.
We know more about two opposition figures, Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, than we did in mid-December. Mulcair spent the holidays and the first month of 2013 accelerating his efforts to moderate the NDP’s public image. Trudeau made it through the opening rounds of the woefully belated Liberal leadership campaign without showing up at a debate without pants, saying the country is run by too many Albertans — well, at least he managed not to say it again — or doing anything else to blow his reputation among Liberals. And a string of polls (the kind that ask about hypothetical situations in the future, so don’t take them as gospel) suggest he’d take a far bigger bite out of NDP and Conservative support than any of his opponents. So his lead in the Liberal leadership race holds steady.
I think Mulcair’s six weeks have been more significant. We always knew he’d seek to position the NDP more toward the centre. Brian Topp’s second-place campaign in last year’s NDP leadership contest was based on thinly veiled warnings to that precise effect. In the Dec. 13 interview with Don Martin he took every chance to depict his NDP, not as a party that more closely approximates some ideal of social justice than the others, but simply as one that’s more competent. He wouldn’t call for Peter MacKay’s resignation over the F-35 procurement because “if you ask for a resignation a week, it loses all meaning.” But he said the fiasco “is sheer incompetence… They blew the whole process from day one. It is public money. They like to brand themselves as good public managers. This shows that they’re not that.” Nor would he flatly preclude the F-35 purchase: “We’re not going to go through the same mistake that we saw when the helicopters were cancelled by the Liberals,” way back in 1993. “Canada needs a jet fighter fleet.”
That wasn’t quite his slogan in the NDP leadership campaign. “Tom Mulcair: Because Canada needs a jet fighter fleet.” But the NDP leader’s refusal to act like an NDP leader continued during the extended drama over Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s dietary choices. As I’ve already noted, Mulcair steered well clear of Spence from the outset. Instead his highest-profile public event between December and now was his (slightly gimmicky, to be sure) summit meeting with provincial NDP leaders in Ottawa. This sought to demonstrate a few things: the notion that New Democrats can govern, as they do in two provinces and could soon in B.C. and Ontario. A more classic post-1960 vision of executive federalism, in which a leader in Ottawa does not exhaust his ingenuity seeking to avoid simultaneous meetings with leaders from the provinces. A continued “focus on the economy,” always hard to define but now apparently a game the NDP can play too.
Jack Layton was always leery about straying too far from NDP orthodoxy because he could never be sure of gaining as much support from new supporters as he’d lose in motivated longtime NDP support. Mulcair’s gone further in that direction, faster than Layton ever did. Largely it’s because the promise of power is more credible now than ever. If the NDP had 40 seats and Mulcair was trying to do what he’s doing now, there would already be meetings of New Democrats trying to figure out how to stop him. I’m surprised the Conservatives haven’t yet tried to drive a wedge between Mulcair and the party he joined less than six years ago.
But then, the Conservatives cannot yet be sure they want the NDP in serious trouble. Enter Justin Trudeau. He had a less surprising January, but one in which he continued as the apparent Liberal front-runner. Much can happen in 10 weeks, but there’s a good chance he’s the next Liberal leader. If he is, his effect on the Liberal vote is hard to predict.
Stephen Harper stays in power as long as that majority of voters who don’t support the Conservatives continue to divide their support among competing opposition parties. As the parliamentary year 2013 begins, the two largest opposition parties are moving, the NDP to consolidate its new position as an alternative government, the Liberals to reverse a decline that has put the party in existential danger. The three parties’ manoeuvring will be the backdrop against which the debates of the first half of 2013 take place.