Are we under-estimating the NDP again?

Why you can't sleep on Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats

Paul Chiasson/CP

Thomas Mulcair says he had a “great summer.” Which perhaps only seems odd if you put much stock in the obvious poll numbers.

There was a trip to France to meet with Prince Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and then two tours of Canada—one to promote the NDP’s desire to see the Senate abolished, the other a “listening tour” of First Nations communities. It is the latter that Mr. Mulcair says is the “number one file” he’s worked on. He says he is resolved that his “will be the first government since Confederation to actually develop a nation-to-nation approach with First Nations and start solving some of these long-term, vexing problems that successive governments have either ignored or announced in their 13th year that they were going to finally deal with and then do nothing.”

All the same, the likelihood that his will be the next government has seemed, at least at first glance, to be decreasing. From the heady days of Spring 2012, when the New Democrats led the Conservatives for three months, support for the NDP has slowly eroded, falling from a peak of 35 to a low of 23 in July and August—much of the decline coinciding with the emergence of Justin Trudeau.

So has the NDP’s moment passed? Has the natural order of Canadian politics, after a brief disturbance, been restored? Or are we once again under-estimating the NDP?

Even if Mr. Trudeau could have been expected to enjoy a few months of honeymoon polling—like Mr. Mulcair and Michael Ignatieff before him—the Liberal bounce has been dramatic and, so far, largely sustained. But the numbers are not all bad for Mr. Mulcair.. CROP, for instance, has shown the NDP still leading in Quebec. And, perhaps most notably, here are also numbers from Abacus that show the NDP leader faring better than Mr. Trudeau when respondents are asked to judge each leader’s qualifications, judgment, vision and understanding of the problems facing the country.

Only in terms of likability does the NDP leader trail the Liberal leader. And perhaps that matters less than might be assumed. “People don’t vote for prime ministers they like, they vote for prime ministers they see as competent,” says one NDP official. If Mr. Mulcair cannot hope to bring the sort of spirit and attitude that Mr. Trudeau has brought, the NDP leader also has the experience that Mr. Trudeau lacks.

It is also true that no too long ago New Democrats would have been thrilled to see 23% in any kind of poll. “In 2011, nobody was predicting the NDP or seeing us as a contender. They do now,” says the official. “Our universe is bigger than it’s ever been. Before it was a lot of people [saying], ‘The NDP doesn’t have a chance, why would I waste my vote?’ Now they see NDP as a very possible government.”

By way of anecdote, Mr. Mulcair recalls a redirected flight in British Columbia this summer and having to show up an hour late to an event in Comox. When he finally arrived, he said, there were 250 people still waiting to see him. “So the brand is strong,” he says. He can point too to the candidates his party has drawn in Toronto Centre and Bourassa. Noting how much attention Linda McQuaig has drawn in her run for the former, he enthuses about Stephane Moraille’s run in Montreal—an immigrant from Haiti and former pop singer with Bran Van 3000 who now works as a lawyer. “She’s an incredible success story,” he says, “but she wanted to run with us.” There are familiar faces too, at least now operating behind the scenes. Anne McGrath and George Nakitsas, former chiefs of staff to Jack Layton and Ed Broadbent respectively, have been recruited to advise Mr. Mulcair on preparations for the 2015 campaign.

Opposite that are all the reasons to wonder about the NDP’s future. Mr. Trudeau continues to be an attractive story for both the press gallery and the public. The BC NDP suffered an embarrassing defeat in that province’s election and the NDP government in Nova Scotia was just replaced. Jack Layton is gone and Mr. Mulcair’s opponents are now keen to hang the moniker of “Angry Tom” on the successor to the so-called happy warrior (and now maybe it is Mr. Trudeau who has taken up the sense of fun that Mr. Layton owned in 2011). Prominent MPs Nathan Cullen and Olivia Chow might soon depart for other political pursuits (though if the latter manages to prove herself a popular and competent mayor for this country’s largest city, her departure might actually be to the NDP’s benefit in 2015).

And yet, it still basically true that the NDP has never been better positioned two years removed from an election. “The NDP has never been closer to forming a government,” Mr. Mulcair says. “And people are giving us a good hard look. And I don’t disagree with that. I don’t mind being under a microscope, whether it’s with the press or with the pundits or with the voting public. I want them to be giving us a good look. We’ve got a hell of a team.”

Even if that team has proved something as official opposition, the trick now is convincing voters that it can be trusted to govern. Mr. Mulcair acknowledges that Canadians will have to be “fed up” with the Conservatives if the Harper government is to be replaced. But replacing Prime Minister Harper with Prime Minister Mulcair  might also require winning two arguments: that now is the time for a progressive government and that New Democrats are not quite the free-spending, high-taxing socialists you might imagine them to be.

“This is an electorate that is risk averse,” says Brad Lavigne, an NDP strategist who advised Jack Layton. It is an electorate, he says, that is looking for a steady hand and a good manager.

Whatever Linda McQuaig has written in the past, there’ll be no increases to personal income taxes so long as Mr. Mulcair is leader. In a recent essay, Mr. Mulcair laid out his suggestions for the Throne Speech and over the last two weeks, New Democrats have been making daily announcements of what they would like to see done about the justice system, youth unemployment, public appointments and the Senate. NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian is drafting a national energy strategy. Some of what the NDP wants to be about is broad and philosophical: sustainable development, income inequality, regulation and the role for a national government. Some of it seems almost small: a commitment, for instance, to cap ATM fees at 50 cents per transaction.

That promise is not entirely new—Jack Layton raised it as a cause in 2007—but it is potentially not insignificant. It is a practical, understandable and achievable commitment. Of the sort the Conservatives are apparently thinking about building their next Throne Speech around.

In conversation, Mr. Mulcair gestures to his assistant and notes that he was charged $4 for a transaction in Newfoundland this summer. That, apparently, “is not on.”

“The public sees through those examples something that affects them directly because we’re talking about pocket book issues, but we’re talking about affordability and that plays right into the growing gap between the richest and the poorest in our society,” Mr. Mulcair explains. “So they’re templates. They’re things that people can look at and say, ‘That fits. That’s my vision. I want a fairer society.’ ”

The choice Mr. Mulcair sets up in speeches is between “a government that says we all have to settle for less and a government that knows together we can strive for more.” “We’re proposing another option,” Mr. Mulcair says to conclude the interview. “A government that’s going to exist only for the public. It’s going to work.”

He has also taken to telling New Democrats that “this is our moment.” And maybe it is or maybe it still could be.