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.