With the candidates and their supporters packed tightly into bleachers, chanting and cheering, it felt like an old-time political gathering. Volunteers handed out scarves and signs in support of the contenders. Hospitality suites were crammed with booze and bodies. Loyalists of Brian Topp were made to wear tiny top hats, even though this made them look like oversized organ-grinder monkeys.
But this pageantry and hat head were for nothing. Most New Democrats who’d be choosing the party’s next leader had voted before the convention even began. Thomas Mulcair could have used his 20 minutes of stage time before the first ballot to repeatedly punch a cat in the face—and still he would have won the leadership. As a bonus, smacking around a kitty would have earned him less hostility and criticism than he took for his speeches.
Mulcair’s performance during the candidates’ showcase began with a line of drummers snaking its way through the hall. This was meant to go on for three minutes. It went on for 10 because, hey, who doesn’t love an interminable drum solo, right? Suddenly up against the clock, Mulcair could have chosen to pare his remarks—but clearly the man didn’t want to deprive us of a single syllable of genius. And so out came the words, fast and then faster. Sweat formed along his brow and down his nose. By the end, Mulcair sounded like a guy reciting a legal disclaimer at the end of a radio commercial. No one remembered a word of it.
A day later, in victory, Mulcair was given a second chance to make a first impression on many Canadians.
The vanquished moved to the stage. Topp, the runner-up, looked as though his dog had just been run over. Ed Broadbent, an outspoken critic of Mulcair, looked as though he was Brian Topp’s dog. As Jack Layton’s successor arrived at the podium, the TV cameras found third-place finisher Nathan Cullen at the side of the stage. He was fiddling with his BlackBerry. NDP unity fever—CATCH IT!
The first five minutes of Mulcair’s acceptance speech were devoted to thank yous. In any campaign, many are owed a debt—and public gestures of appreciation are a key currency of politics. But even here, the address had its odd moments. Mulcair gently ridiculed the labour-inspired NDP tradition of referring to one another as “brothers and sisters.” He carefully followed a written text in issuing words of thanks to his relatives. And then came this line, delivered in French but translated on TV: “To my mother—my Mom, who with her brothers and sisters is up north watching us: Hello.”
Should Mulcair fail over the course of his leadership to develop a common touch and connect with Canadians, these four words may serve as his political epitaph: “To my Mom: Hello.”
Mulcair then got to the meat of his speech. It made for tough chewing. He said things like “Young people are active in their community groups.” He said things like “Leadership comes in many forms.” Mulcair spoke with all the dynamism and charm of an economics professor, his face buried in his text. Voters of Canada, the NDP would like to introduce you to its new leader: the top of this guy’s head!
Did Mulcair take on the Harper government? Not really. Did he make a case for why more Canadians should support the NDP? He did not. Did he attempt to rally the thousands of faithful who’d spent money and effort and 12 hours of their time on Saturday alone in service to the party and its future? Not even a little bit.
Ten minutes in, the crowd was starved for something to cheer. Mulcair said, “Our future is limitless if we get our priorities right.” A few in the audience clapped, prompting Mulcair to glance up from the page. He seemed genuinely startled. Whoa, how did all these people get in my room?
The speech moved toward its conclusion. The NDP leader spoke of “human capacity” and “human innovation.” (Tough break, animals.) The crowd stood still and silent. They braced themselves for what seemed inevitable—Mulcair concluding his inaugural address by reciting his footnotes and bibliography.
After 15 minutes, Thomas Mulcair finished talking at his audience and looked up, smiling broadly. Clearly, in his mind, a connection had been made. It’s a connection that can best be summed up with the heartfelt words: “To the voters of Canada: Hello.”