Why Tom Mulcair is Stephen Harper’s first real Opposition threat in years

Paul Wells: Get ready for Beethoven vs. Nickelback in federal politics

Get ready for Beethoven vs. Nickelback

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Tom Mulcair is the most experienced opposition leader Stephen Harper has faced. Between Quebec’s national assembly and the federal Parliament, he’s been in elected politics for 18 years. Unlike Paul Martin, who had been in Parliament for nearly as long, Mulcair has been in an opposition party, Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals, that fought its way to government. He is an effective interrogator of witnesses in parliamentary committees, a skill he should keep using. He’s smart and hungry.

For now, he’s more a danger to Bob Rae than to Stephen Harper.

Some of my colleagues have been tut-tutting Mulcair for reading from notes in his victory speech at the NDP convention and in his first performances in the House of Commons. Here in the Parliamentary press gallery, we like our political leaders spontaneous. It’s why so many of us thought Michael Ignatieff’s town-hall free-association sessions were the highlight of the 2011 election. It helps explain why apparently nobody in 30 years has ever taken Bob Rae aside and said, “Bob? Edit.”

What people in my line of work hate to admit is that what a leader says is more important than how he says it. As soon as he got back to the Commons, Mulcair made a beeline toward economic uncertainty. “Mr. Speaker, since the Conservatives took office, Canada has lost hundreds of thousands of good jobs in the manufacturing sector,” he said. And then: “The Conservatives are saddling future generations with the biggest environmental, economic and social debt in our history. They are gutting the manufacturing sector and destabilizing the balanced economy that we have built up since the Second World War.”

This is so far from the lint-picking self-obsession that characterizes much of current parliamentary debate as to be positively bracing. Following Mulcair, a chastened Rae attempted a me-too line of questioning on the same topics at a louder volume. But his party has pursued a more esoteric line of argument—essentially, that the Harper Conservatives are naughty flouters of proper parliamentary procedure—through a decade of diminishing electoral returns.

After that first QP, Mulcair told reporters he plans to keep focusing on “the failure of the Conservatives to apply basic rules of sustainable development.” Mulcair’s line of attack is all about the Conservatives’ zeal for developing and exporting natural resources, which, handily, your humble columnist has been writing about for three months. “That’s driven up the value of the Canadian dollar, made it more difficult to export our own goods,” Mulcair said.

There is a very large voter market in this country for Canadians who don’t like the Harper record on oil, the environment, and the fate of Canadian heavy manufacturing. One label for that market could be “people who haven’t been voting Conservative.” Those voters have been switching allegiances as they look for a way to stop Harper. In 2011, more than 1.5 million of them left the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and Green party to vote NDP.

It’s an open question whether the NDP can hold those votes. Mulcair gives it a shot at succeeding. The full-year head start he has over a future Liberal leader helps too. The Liberals will probably indulge several months of procedural inanity to transform Bob Rae from Windy Improvising Interim Leader into Windy Improvising Permanent Leader a few months earlier than originally planned. Mulcair is no Happy Warrior Jack Layton, but seriously, neither is Rae. The Liberals need to worry.

But there is another big vote market in the country, which we can call “people who have been voting Conservative.” They will see little in Mulcair to make them change their minds.

The debate Mulcair wants is about economic interest, and millions of Canadians have a stake in the growing resource economy. The fights he wants, over free trade, serious carbon-pricing schemes, and the wisdom of support for fading companies over rising ones have been fought too many times. We know how the fight usually ends.

When Mulcair was sitting at the cabinet table, Charest’s Quebec government made profit maximization the main goal of the Caisse de dépot, Quebec’s public sector pension fund. Today the Caisse holds $5 billion in shares in Alberta oil sands companies. That’s where the pursuit of economic interest leads these days.

There is something else, subtler, more cultural. Layton grew up at the Hudson Yacht Club, but he rode a bike, liked a beer, strummed a guitar, was comfortable at kitchen tables in working class neighbourhoods. He could compete head-on with Harper on the coveted ground of “cares about people like me.” Mulcair has the look and feel of the last few Liberal leaders. His Outremont riding has working class corners, but most of it is home to the oldest of old Montreal money.

During the NDP leadership campaign, SunTV asked candidates which record they like best. Mulcair named a recording of the Beethoven opera Fidelio. Stephen Harper likes to have the guys from Nickelback over to 24 Sussex. Given the choice, I’d take Beethoven too, but Nickelback sells more records. For four elections in a row the Conservatives have run a populist rush against elites in urban enclaves. Mulcair wants to lead the party of the Canadian worker from Outremont. He’s good, but he can’t work miracles.


Why Tom Mulcair is Stephen Harper’s first real Opposition threat in years

  1. Nice article Paul!
    I’ll correct you on one point. It may seem nit-pickety, but it speaks to Mulcair’s appeal.
    Only about one quarter of the population of the federal riding of Outremont lives in the upperscale borough of Outremont and only half of those live in posh houses. Th rest live in apartments and  condos. The riding of Outremont is one of the most multi-cultural in the country. Well over 100 languages are spoke in the homes of that district. He beat out the former MP and Liberal Minister, Martin Cauchon with more than double his vote count in 2011.
    Mulcair, regardless of what music he listens to, has a way of communicating that makes politics accessible to the masses. It is his communication skills which will carry him to 24 Sussex. 

    • Not unless he offers some concrete workable alternatives. Taxing the hell out of corporations which will increase the cost of living for all Canadians will not win him many friends among the ordinary folks.

      • Well, he’ll win the anti-Harperites, including lots of ordinary folks.

        But if PM Harper can keep his hold on Toronto suburbanites, his lock on the Prairies, and not get shelled in BC, that’s a road to an easy second majority.

        • I agree.

          I would also point out that come 2015 there will three choices. Mulcair who favours all things Quebec and the old dude by the name of Bob Rae. I think Canadians will be mighty sick of hearing about all things Quebec and the rest of us would shutter to think of a government run by Bob Rae.
          There may be a lot of anti Harper types around but given the choices available he will do well in 015.

      • Taxing the hell out of corporations is actually perfectly sound economics, for a whole fleet of reasons.  Yes, I know it’s not the conventional wisdom you see in the pages of newspapers sold by, um, corporations.  No idea why that could be.

        • You forget that corporations have options. Tax them to death and they will move elsewhere. Tax them to death and they start cutting jobs. Tax them to death and they go out of business.

          Then we will see the lefties crying about their precious social programs. Who do you think is going to employ those without work. Oh, I know the socialist government. Thank God that is not going to happen in Canada.

          • Unfortunately oil companies won’t be leaving because they’ve already invested too much here to quit now. Oil revenue is such a temptation, but a lot of us in B.C. care more about our environment than easy money!  There’s so much beauty here, those who haven’t lived here don’t understand our passion for our land and waters. We have a small population in Canada that can easily be sustained without dealing with communist China’s dictatorial and corrupt rulers. It’s truly pathetic to see Harper doing business with those tyrants. And now he’s borrowing their practice of shutting down political scrutiny.

          • I have been to B.C. and it is truly a beautiful part of the country. However, you can live in a beautiful part of a prosperous country or you can turn it into a backwater because there is no economic activity to support it.

            Where is the economic growth going to come from if you shut down or significantly curtail the oil sands?

            Ontario is a basket case with its manufacturing base virtually non existent. Quebec is up to their necks in debt and is living off the rest of Canada. The Maritimes are going nowhere in a hurry except for Newfoundland who is exploiting their natural resources.

            Yes we do have a small population but many Canadians are demanding nanny state government. If we are to maintain healthcare and the other social programs that we have we have to have economic activity.

            We need to use the resources we have and we need to use the best technology we have to ensure its as safe as possible. However, no system is perfect.

            You go where the opportunities are and unfortunately that is China and Brazil. We can stick our noses up in the air and say no but we will soon become a have not country.

            As for shutting down political scrutiny. I assume you mean shortening the environmental process. How long would you like to study it…five years, ten years? The idea is to stop it. As they say slow walk it to death so it is no longer viable.

          • “but a lot of us in B.C. care more about our environment thaneasy money!”

            Obviously you dont go to the other parts of BC (other than Vancouver) like Fort St John who are more than happy to go after the “easy money” Most companies are heaing into NE BC over AB now because the royalty rates are more attractive

          • Yes, that’s why the economies of the Nordic countries have collapsed.  Oh, wait, they haven’t!
            You can spin all the theory you want, but in actual fact relatively high-tax regimes with stronger social programs and so forth have better outcomes.  Certainly for people, but also in terms of general economic performance, productivity, competitiveness . . .
            Let’s not forget that what corporations pay isn’t income tax like real people pay, it’s tax on profits.  Only cuts in once they’re already making money.

          • Yeah sure everything is all rosy in those socialist European country isn’t it?. You can talk about the Nordic countries if you want but comparing them to Canada is not really relevant is it?

            You can attack corporations but the fact is without corporations where are people going to earn a living. Working for the government? The system is not perfect but unless you have a viable alternative you argument is  moot.

  2. As I have said before the angry old white guy, red faced screaming about some injustice done to Quebec or the union movement will get tiresome pretty quickly. Wells appears to like Mulcair’s line of attack because it sounds good…. is all about the Conservatives’ zeal for developing and exporting natural resources, which, handily, your humble columnist has been writing about for three months. “That’s driven up the value of the Canadian dollar, made it more difficult to export our own goods,” Mulcair said.

    Well unless Mulcair has some concrete realistic alternative solutions then the schtick will become boring pretty quickly. Increasing the cost of living for all Canadians (carbon tax) while building wind turbines and installing solar panels just ain’t going to cut it. Muclair should talk to McSquishy who runs Ontario how his environmental policies have worked.

    • BC’s carbon tax works just fine, and is actually pretty popular there. For many, cost of living have decreased because of the offset in income and corporate tax. Plus, lots of economists agree that it’s the best solution. Unfortunately, politicians have managed to misrepresent and demonize what would be great policy.

      • Do you honestly believe that God forbid an NDP government was elected that taxes would be lowered.

        • Why not? A progressive economic platform for full employment and financial stability would have to recognize that cutting taxes for an over-indebted middle class makes sense right now.

          But we might also say that this is insufficient given that debt deflation and unemployment is increasing — we need public investment to counter those loses and get us back on a footing for real, low but positive growth. And not hope to rely on a recovery from the next asset price inflation bandwagon.


    • Sounds kind of funny coming from an apologist for the party of angry old red-faced screaming white guys.

      • Its only a figment of you imagination if you are talking about the Conservative party. When have you seen Harper or any of his cabinet ministers red faced and angry. You may not like what they say but the tone is usually measured and calm.

        • I understand now.  You favour the Conservatives because you’re talking about the Conservatives from a different dimension, unlike Baird et al. from this one.

  3.  Mulcair is a clueless communist that will soon be the laughing stock of Canada with no help from anyone but Mulcair, a Screaming banshee in the manner of tequila Sheila Copps.

    • Find your meds, you’re hallucinating again.

    •  Your comments are like some shaggy, little mut barking at an elegant Red Setter.  The Red Setter being Mulcair!
      But I do love dogs regardless of their size and pedigree…it is just their behaviour that is replusive at times.
      Some just need to learn some class…guess it depends on how they have been trained.

    • Speaking of clueless, you might want to learn the difference between socialist and communist.

      Then again, from the tone of your comment, you probably don’t care; you probably just like name-calling and that one, to you, was the worst you could come up with.

  4. The Hudson Yacht Club is hardly the RCYC. And Hudsoin in general is a Layton kind of town.

  5. Mulcair was a cabinet Minister in Quebec that relied on an 8 Billion equalization payment as their largest source of “revenue” to pay their bills.

    He made no attempt to lower the payment …. to invest it to make Quebec sustainable.  He quit the Quebec Liberals over them trying to generate some revenue on their own.

    He compares Norway to Canada.   Norway,  as Mr. Mulcairs socialist utopia, has put aside a huge amount of their Oil riches aside for future generations.

    Norway has the same population as Alberta,   but not nearly so divererse.   They keep their $8 B /year extra in saving for the future rather than helping out Greece, Ireland, and Spain. 

    Mr. Mulcair seems to be advocating that Alberta should be keeping their own Oil riches rather than sending it to Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Ontario.

  6. Come on Paul, the last two paragraphs are made up nonsense but if you must play wouldn’t you prefer to have a beer with Mulcair rather than Harper?  The answer is a no brainer to me!

    • The last two paragraphs are really not made up. I had a beer with Layton once. I think I’ll stop there. 

      • Two points on your last paragraphs:

        What if Stephen Harper likes Beethoven as well as Nickelback? Maybe he just has Nickleback over because they’re easier to get a hold of than Beethoven?

        And did you fact check the statement that Nickelback sells more records? Because Beethoven sells well, too, and he’s had more time to make sales.

        • Not only is Beethoven still selling records 175 years after his death, he’ll likely still be selling them in another 175 years (although in some other medium). Nickelback? Probably less longevity.

  7. From the article “But there is another big vote market in the country, which we can call “people who have been voting Conservative.” They will see little in Mulcair to make them change their minds.”

    Well now, it seems to me that there are a whole bunch of constituencies in Ontario where folks voted conservative in the last election and various journalists wrote a lot about the Ontario / Alberta coalition created by Harper.  Those same voters will be unhappy to see the decline of the manufacturing heartland this budget will allow as well as the resulting unemployment.  Yeah there is a couple of hundred million per year for innovation in this budget, but this won’t change employment for at least half a decade. In any case these funds pale in comparison to the $300 billion in cash reserves currently held by Canadian corporations and which they chose not to invest in innovation or productivity improvement. 

    These same Ontario conservative voters are unlikley to be happy to see that the primary economic focus of this budget is the oil sands development in Alberta.  The Ontario / Alberta coalition that gave Harper a majority cannot survive this divisive budget and Mulcair is already chipping away at it.

  8. Mulcair should be able to somewhat solidify the gains Layton made in Quebec and make it harder for the Liberals to “bounce back” in the next election.
    By moving the NDP further to the center he gives Rae even less wiggle room.
    All in all it seems that the Conservatives should be fairly happy with the NDP’s selection.

  9.  had a tough time getting through this article because I kept reading and re-reading one of the very first sentences, which astonished me, frankly coming form you, Paul. You write: “Unlike Paul Martin, who had been in Parliament for nearly as long, Mulcair has been in an opposition party, Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals, that fought its way to government.”. Paul Martin was first elected in 1988 under the leadership of John Turner, who was indeed Leader of the Opposition, which made Paul a member of an opposition party, which also subsequently “fought it’s way to government in 1993.


    • Guilty as charged. Screwed up; got caught. Sorry for that.

  10. Why do we need another Quebecer to lead Canada ? Look at what the others did ! I’m tired of these politicans from Quebec saying “Canada & Quebec”. 

  11. so when does the proposing rather than opposing stop being anything but rhetoric.. and when push comes to shove Mulcair’s dual citizenship (france) will sink them. Canadians will not vote for a French citizen anymore than they will vote for an american, russian, ethiopian et al.

  12. i also had a beer with layton once, but lets not forget his abuse of social housing and chinese sex slaves.  in committee, Both Olivia Chow and Irwin Cotler stated that they  do not believe that the average Canadian can make a rational decision.. check that one out paul.  Same day that David Chiu (sic) testified.

    • Seems to me that the majority government we have in place is proof Olivia and Irwin may have been on to something

  13. Smart and hungry is exactly what I want in an Opposition leader.

    And since I have absolutely no use for a party which strives not to lead, nor to do what is best for the country, but instead to determine which policies are the most faddishly popular of the day and then adhere to them like glue, I am glad to see the Liberals bleeding support.

    Let us have a clear choice between the Left and the Right, with the positions of each as well-articulated, publicized, and defended as possible.  Let each be represented by a cohesive party with an effective leader.  And then let Canadians make a free choice.  That is honest democracy, and while we on the Right are nowhere near that ideal for our side, it looks to me like the NDP is making positive steps to achieve it for the Left.  So good on them, and may Mr. Mulcair continue with the drive and eloquence with which he seems to have started.

    • You say you have no use for a party which does not strive to do what is best for the country.. and then advocate for a clear choice between ideologies.

      Did it ever occur that “what is best” for the country may not be a single ideologic position.. and for different issues may be in entirely opposite ideologies, or none at all?

      • Why yes… yes it did.

        Did it ever occur to you that if someone is sincerely trying to determine and act on what is genuinely “best” for the country, they will be open to all arguments and solutions even though they approach it from a particular ideology?

        This is quite distinct from trying to do what is popular. It’s the difference between objective and subjective.

        • No. They won’t. Because defining how people think about things is what ideology MEANS.

          • An ideology is a worldview. It no more prevents one from being open-minded than an ocean view prevents one from looking inland. Unless, of course, one’s worldview includes the assumption that no worldview is objectively better than any other, in which case one clings to one’s worldview because of emotional attachment rather than being open to the possibility that another’s worldview might make more sense. But enough about relativism.

          • So you’re saying that one worldview is objectively better than another. And that’s a piece of your ideology. Which, by necessity, stops you from looking at the whole picture which might be in fact that none is better.

          • Right! If I think something is true, I must be completely incapable of even considering alternative possibilities!

            Good grief.

  14. El Deutche Harp must be stopped if Canada is to stay….Canadian….the meanest will inherit the dirty oil sands while our manufacturing will be worth zilch and our exports down the drain they’ll go…the .05% should be happy Harp is leading the orchestra of socially malnourished rejects called the CRAP party..

  15. Mulcair was the only leader who managed in one paragraph to:

    a) point out the economic flaws of Harper’s push for dirty oil & gas over the inevitability of green economy and fact that the tiny number of jobs in the dirty pipe line are no match for a robust manufacturing/export sector going to pot due to high dollar produced by the thankless newly-rich western region that forgot who had to subsidize them when they were dirt-poor!

    b) pointed out that the lowest of the low, poor seniors, will be hit hardest by Harper’s ideological eccentricities that’ll cost Canada billions in social and economic costs in the long term

    c) capsulized the inefficiencies of a hard-line purely Tea Party Newt Gingrich philosophy for the 1% that are lobbying Harper’s government—and OWN it!

    No other political “leader” has been as incompetent (anyone can run the budget by spending spending spending their inheritance from previous governments and stay popular by gutting taxes for those who can afford to  pay them the most.

    Harper’s pure hatred ideology against women  (we all know MRS. Harper is living with her RCMP female lover separately in Ottawa for the last 2 years as Andrew Cohen hinted in the Ottawa Citizen and Norman Spector’s blog that was pulled from the Globe Dec. 2010 stated clearly!  Harper’s life is a LIE and he’s keeping his failed abusive marriage under wraps!!

  16. Not that I would want to put Mulcair on a pedestal but I have a theory that he may be the only person that can keep Canada intact.

    The PQ have stated that they are gonna to re-ignite the separatists movement after the provincial election in 2013.

    Even Justin Trudeau said that seeing Harper’s vision of Canada he understands the separatists movement (I’m from the west even I understand the separatists movement)

    Mulcair has strong roots in Quebec and a good reputation (mostly).  If he can make his case to Quebecor’s that voting for him in the federal election is a better alternative than voting for separatism it may be the only thing stopping another Quebec separatists referendum.

  17. I don’t like to sound cliche, but Harper truly scares me. I don’t like what he’s doing to our country, and I’m glad it seems like Mulcair has the brains and wit it takes to stand up to him, to force the media to stop repeating Harper’s logic-defying propaganda, and to waken Canadians from their stupor. 

    Innumerable countries have tried the low-corporate-taxes-creates-jobs model, and, without fail, it has failed. Give corporations tax breaks and they milk it for all it’s worth, stuff the money in CEO’s pockets, and leave the first chance they get (check out the story of Tupperware in southern Manitoba). 

    With our wealth of natural resources that the world needs (food, water, shelter [lumber], and fuel are necessities, not luxuries), Canada should be calling the shots in a way that most benefits us in the long term. I cannot understand why Harper begs for their business (regardless of their human-rights record), pays them for taking our resources (leaving us with a mess and an inability to self-sustain), AND gives them (not foreign environmental groups) a say in our economy. For example, Harper gave China a veto over Alberta oil if Canada refines that oil. Let’s pretend that, like Harper, none of us cares about the environmental impact of the oil business; refining that oil before we export it would create a lot of well-paying jobs. All the people with those jobs put that money back in the Canadian economy. Win-win. So what, exactly, is in it for Harper (because it does not appear there’s much in it for Canada) to create jobs in China and, via the Northern Gateway pipeline he’s bullying through by silencing debate, in Texas? For the cost of the Northern Gateway to pipe raw bitumen south (so we can buy it back?) we could build refineries in Canada then put any price we like on the finished product.

    It is impossible to scare away business and investment that is based on natural resources, because such resources are a limited quantity in a specific location. This isn’t a shoe factory that could be built and run anywhere. Where else will oil companies go to do business? The oil (and potash and minerals and lumber and agricultural land) is HERE. We could tax the bejeesus out of them, and they’d still want a piece of our action.

    There are but two glimmers of hope for our nation: (1) Mr. Mulcair’s clear ability to hold the government accountable, and (2) Mr. Harper’s short-sighted tactics may be (short-term) popular in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but the majority of Canadian voters live in Ontario and Quebec; Mr. Harper’s slammed-through priorities do not appear to consider the economic impact in those provinces. I hope they don’t forget come next election (even if Harper trots out a few bandaids and candies). I hope Mr. Mulcair reminds them.

  18. The title is misleading.