Justin Trudeau’s other opponent

The new Liberal leader’s biggest rivalry may not be with Harper, but fellow progressive Mulcair

Trudeau’s other opponent

Photograph by Adam Scotti

The House of Commons is laid out to create confrontations, classically a prime minister and an opposition leader glaring at one another across the wide centre aisle. So when Justin Trudeau entered the chamber this week for the first time as Liberal leader, interest naturally focused on how he would fare against Stephen Harper. (Their initial exchange was disappointingly low-key.) But there is another equally intriguing, though less obvious, way to size up the House scene. If Trudeau takes a sidelong glance from his new front-bench seat, he’s liable to catch sight of the brooding profile of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair—potentially his even more important adversary in the next election.

Neither Mulcair nor Trudeau seems eager to publicly emphasize his rivalry with the other, at least not nearly as much as his desire to bring down Harper. Yet in key election battlegrounds—notably Quebec, home province of both—their success in the expected 2015 campaign will depend largely on which left-of-centre party comes out on top and by how much. “It really comes down to trying to eliminate the other progressive option,” says Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker. Recent polls show the Liberals surging past the NDP on the strength of the excitement Trudeau generated cruising to victory in the party’s leadership race. That sort of bounce for a new leader is typical, but not easy to sustain. Still, the opinion shift provides a glimpse of how Trudeau’s rise, if he doesn’t falter, might change the next election’s outcome.

Wilfrid Laurier University’s Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy blended the findings of five national polls, conducted in late March and early April, and projected that if those voter preferences prevailed on election day, the Tories would be reduced to a minority, 138 seats down from 164. The Liberals would vault into second place, rising to 93 MPs from today’s 35, while the NDP would be relegated back to third, dropping to 89 seats from 100. Barry Kay, a political science professor at the university and an associate at the institute, says projected Liberal gains in Quebec—from today’s eight seats to a respectable 23—would come mainly from the NDP. In Atlantic Canada and Ontario, Trudeau would pick up ridings primarily from the Tories—sometimes as a result, not so much of the Conservative vote slipping, but of NDP support shifting to the Liberals.

Bricker sees taking votes back from the NDP as Trudeau’s main task ahead. His latest Ipsos Reid poll, conducted March 28 to April 3, put the Liberals at 32 per cent, a hair above the Tories at 31 per cent, with the NDP close behind at 27 per cent. But he sees Harper’s support as solid at that level, unlikely to erode further. For Trudeau to find more votes in winnable ridings, he must slice deeper into Mulcair’s share. “As long as the NDP stays at this artificially high level, which is historical for them, it really doesn’t matter what else the Liberals do,” Bricker says.

Of course, the NDP doesn’t concede that polling in the high twenties is artificially elevated. In fact, a senior NDP strategist, who asked not to be named, argues it’s the recent Liberal numbers that are inflated. He pointed to how Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff both enjoyed short-lived polling spikes after they won the Liberal leadership, only to drag the party down to crushing defeats in the last two elections. As well, the strategist says the NDP’s main concern in Quebec is any recovery of the Bloc Québécois, not a Trudeau-led Liberal revival. The NDP takes solace from numbers that suggest the Liberal leadership race failed to spark much enthusiasm in Quebec. Out of about 104,000 Liberal party members and supporters who voted—an overwhelming 80 per cent of them for Trudeau—just 11,929 were Quebecers. That’s only slightly more than one in 10 ballots cast, from a province that accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

There are hints, however, that the NDP is taking the Trudeau threat more seriously than Mulcair’s advisers admit. Although the Tories were out first this week with widely anticipated anti-Trudeau attack ads, the NDP is also producing new TV spots. According to the NDP strategist, they will highlight Mulcair’s experience—implying a contrast with Trudeau. Like their Tory counterparts, NDP strategists apparently see Trudeau as lacking a credible prime minister’s resumé. At an NDP policy convention last weekend in Montreal, though, Mulcair mainly left it to other New Democrat MPs to dismiss the new Liberal leader. Trudeau was more overt in his acceptance speech after his leadership win was announced in Ottawa, lumping Mulcair in with Harper as “divisive and negative.”

Canadian politics is often portrayed as if it follows the two-party U.S. or British mode, as a right-vs.-left affair. But with the rise of Trudeau making it a three-party contest again, the first order of political business might not be to defeat Stephen Harper so much as to establish which rival really ranks as his foremost challenge.