To win, Mulcair needs the full heft of the left -

To win, Mulcair needs the full heft of the left

Unlike Dion, Mulcair is not allergic to political strategy, effective staffing and artful rhetoric

To win, Mulcair needs the full heft of the left
Mike Cassese/Reuters

And suddenly the left is on a roll in Canada. Sort of. “Canada’s got a new leader,” an NDP ad says. “Tom Mulcair.” This is not strictly accurate—Canada has the same old leader and merely a new Opposition leader—but never mind.

“We started something special together,” Mulcair says in the ads, eyes glinting. “Now let’s get the job done.”

As if on cue, the polls are lining up to offer a semblance of support for the idea that getting the job done is possible. A Léger poll published April 7 found the NDP at 33 per cent Canada-wide, the Conservatives 32 per cent, and the Liberals down at 19 per cent. That’s an eight-point decline for the Conservatives since last year’s election.

Some 57 per cent of respondents said they’re dissatisfied with the Harper government, compared to 36 per cent who like it. Last month’s federal budget drew more unsatisfied reaction than satisfied, and respondents who associated themselves with “the left” outnumbered those sympathizing with “the right” everywhere except Ontario (where they tied) and the three Prairie provinces.

Those numbers don’t spell Conservative doom. They do suggest a non-Conservative alternative has a fighting chance. So too does another poll from Environics for the fledgling Broadbent Institute, which is dedicated to bankrolling polls that gladden the heart of one-time NDP leader Ed Broadbent. This one sure did the trick. It found majorities concerned about income inequality, willing to pay higher taxes to reduce inequality, and positively eager to watch the rich pay higher taxes to reduce income inequality.

So there’s potential traction for a larger-government alternative to the Conservatives. The more thoughtful people around Stephen Harper admit as much. They don’t think their man has shut down the political left, merely that he has managed to stay one step ahead of it while beginning to build a conservative alternative that can stay in the game for the long haul. More Canadians voted against the Conservatives last May 2 than for them. If those Canadians could unite behind one leader or party, Harper would be in trouble.

He does not act as though he thinks he’s in trouble. This is not the first time he has faced a former environment minister from Quebec. So much has changed since the last time it might as well be a whole new game.

Mulcair and Stéphane Dion would bristle at the comparison. First, their roles weren’t quite the same: Dion was a federal environment minister between the 2004 and 2006 elections, overlapping Mulcair’s tenure as Quebec’s environment minister by a bit more than a year. Second, they got along like bricks and fine china. Mulcair once declared that Dion was such a pill he could almost understand why the PQ disliked the guy so much.

Finally—and this may turn out to be an important difference—Mulcair has turned out to be less of a one-note Charlie on environmental issues. Mulcair has his rough edges and prickly moments, but unlike Dion he is not convulsively allergic to political strategy, effective staffing and the art of rhetoric.

But the two men are products of a culture and a set of assumptions. Mulcair speaks consistently in favour of pricing carbon emissions and has, nearly as consistently, criticized unfettered oil sands development. When Dion made similar sounds five years ago, Harper’s response was highly defensive. He put his best attacker, John Baird, into the environment portfolio. Baird called climate change “a huge concern” and came out with impressive-sounding plans for cuts to emissions. The plans never came to anything, but they sounded great.

Today Harper clearly thinks he has global environmentalists on the run. He has dismantled his government’s in-house climate analysis capacity, he’s shutting down arm’s-length advice from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, and he plans to clamp down on foreign financing of environmentalist groups in Canada. His current environment minister, Peter Kent, can hardly believe how lucky he is to help Harper get all this done.

If the population still believes the environment is worth a fight, such callous disregard for the pieties to which he once paid careful lip service will hurt Harper big time. But that’s a big “if.” Harper’s full-tilt promotion of oil sands development and natural-resource exports has so far caused much less public controversy than, say, his decision to prorogue Parliament unnecessarily at the start of 2010. Harper is betting that in a shaky economy most people will be in no mood to ask fancy questions about sustainability.

An important test of his faith is coming up. A bunch of Quebec labour unions, celebrities and environmental groups are organizing a rally in Montreal for April 22. Their online manifesto demands “that the Government of Canada participates fully in the Kyoto Protocol, that it intensifies the fight against climate change, and that it ceases all subsidies to oil and gas companies.”

The manifesto reads as though Tom Mulcair wrote it. The NDP leader has had a good month. He’s clearly a professional. To beat Harper, he needs issues that can rally active and broad support. I’ll offer no predictions, but whatever happens in Montreal on April 22 will tell much of the tale.