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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Blair McCreadie, Marit Stiles and Bernie Farber - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Marit Stiles:

It's been an interesting few weeks, watching as slowly but surely the national narrative has shifted. Some have pointed to the Alberta election as a pivotal moment for the NDP, bringing in new interest in the NDP through Rachel Notley's stellar showing there.

But it's a disservice to the NDP and Mr. Mulcair to call this a 'sudden shift'. I'd liken it to a slow and steady climb.

And the NDP is exactly where they need to be at this point in the pre-election period.

I credit a number of factors with bringing us to this place: Mr. Mulcair's incredibly effective leadership in the role of leader of the Official Opposition; strong staff and a focused leadership; and a timely and recent shift to focus more on getting Tom out 'meeting the people'. At this point in the election calendar, no one can fault him for spending more time on the hustings.

And, as has been noted by other party insiders, it's essential. We still have to a hill to climb in introducing Tom to voters. The key is that as people get to know him, they really like him.

And I would be remiss not to reiterate that this is a gain in popularity that also comes with some solidly smart and important positioning. The NDP's opposition to C-51 was the right, progressive choice and was what many Canadians were looking for in their opposition. It positioned Mulcair and the NDP as the only party really taking on Harper, and that's critical heading into an election where I see a majority of Canadians focused on defeating Conservatives.


Bernie Farber:

Well Marit, we certainly do agree that most Canadians are focused on wanting to end the rein of error as personified by Harper Tories. And you have also identified the key Mulcair issue: "Who is He?"

Tom Mulcair is a pit-bull. He has taken on the Prime Minister in QP and torn him to bits. In media scrums he is open, informative, even transparent. The problem is that despite the sudden uptick in the polls, Mulcair’s adhesiveness seems non-existent. One pundit joked that even with all the positives over the last few months, most people still could not pick Mulcair out of a crowd and are unsure if his name is spelled with one “l” or two.

I simply do not buy that a few months of glad-handing and political commercials will have the impact you want. Developing a new personality is not an overnight venture.

All this said, I have always liked Tom, saw him more as a Liberal than a dipper, which brings to mind the third problem: are his own views always consistent with the that of the party?

Perhaps, but he simply does not give the appearance of a leader with a firm grip on the wheel.


Blair McCreadie:

I agree with Marit that Mr. Mulcair is building the foundation that he needs to emerge as the alternative. And I expect that Mr. Mulcair and the NDP know that, in this pre-election phase, they don’t need to have the stars perfectly align — he just needs to be seen as more credible than Justin Trudeau.

And in that contest, Mr. Mulcair appears to be winning that battle. I expect that part of this can be explained by the expectations that each leader faced within his own party, because I think that it is fair to say that any new leader takes some time to grow into his or her new role.

For the NDP, no one expected Mr. Mulcair to be Jack Layton. I think that this has given him some time to establish himself as an effective Opposition leader, demonstrate his capability in the House of Commons, and put out some policies that are credible to his party’s base.

In contrast, the Liberals picked a legacy name that they hoped would give them a “quick fix” back to government. And, unfortunately for Liberals yearning for some of that old Trudeau magic, well, Justin Trudeau’s best trick has been making his own credibility on the national stage disappear.


Marit Stiles:

Blair makes a great point about the expectations associated with these two 'new' leaders. And it's certainly the case that Tom has been lucky in a certain sense. But he also had a very difficult road ahead of him, with a party and country mourning the loss of Jack, and I think he handled it remarkably well.

I think many commentators tend to overlook that 'human' element of the political machines. There's hurt and sadness and a lot to get over in order to move forward.

I've heard a lot of the same points made by other Liberals, Bernie, over recent weeks. And I think the point you are missing is that it — e.g. the 'Get to know Tom' strategy — is in fact working. He is becoming more known to Canadians, and he is a guy who personifies leadership, who looks ready to govern.

And to your point that maybe he seems like a Liberal, well, I think what you may find is what I’m finding in my own riding: a lot of progressive Liberals are tearing up their membership cards and turning to the NDP. They are disappointed with their party's stand on a number of issues — especially Bill C51 — and they aren't putting up with it anymore. Witness the stream of twitter posts of Liberals cutting up their cards. The Liberals and Trudeau have been taking an unprincipled position on a despicable bill, for the most crass political purposes.

Inexperience, a rocky legacy of scandals that Canadians have yet to forget or forgive the Liberals for, and a leader whom, the Conservatives are quick to point out, is not ready to govern.

I really like the way a friend of mine put it: "The NDP has never been more ready to form government" and I think that's coming across in our policies and in our leadership.


Bernie Farber:

Frankly, Marit, that is simply not my experience. Yes there will be some who will toy with the NDP idea but in the end Mulcair remains a bit of an enigma.

The question so many are asking is: where will all the money for his grand spending come from? Surely you just can’t depend on targeting the ultra-rich, yet that seems to be the only plan to date. And even then Mulcair isn’t looking at raising the federal tax rate for the rich he's just going after corporations. Liberals, true Liberals see the folly of that idea.

We need robust ideas, not handshakes and promises without accountability. If Mulcair wants to play in the big leagues he must do as has Justin: costing things out, showing he is not airy fairy in ideas and bereft of any real financial plans for the country. To do so he may have to borrow from the Liberal playbook.

Right now, as much as you want him to look like a leader in waiting, it’s not really happening. There are many roads to travel and bridges to cross. In my view Canadians are looking for stability and a plan. The Liberals have provided the only one that makes sense.


Blair McCreadie:

After reading the comments above, I can’t resist saying if Bernie wants to give pointers on leadership, he should start by calling the leader of the Third Party. At this point, Mr. Trudeau could use the all the help he can get.

But to go back to an earlier point that Marit made, there’s no question that NDP activists have some new optimism after the Alberta election. But there is a danger in reading too much into what happened there.

First, as Bernie has correctly pointed out, no one will confuse Mr. Mulcair’s current public persona with the down-to-earth approach that now-Premier Rachel Notley was able to put forward to voters during the campaign. Second, we can expect the Prime Minister to run a much more disciplined campaign than our Alberta colleagues.

In the days ahead, the key for Mr. Mulcair will be whether he can establish himself as a viable choice among swing voters outside of Quebec, and in non-traditional areas for the NDP — like the 905 belt in Ontario (outside of Oshawa, of course).

But at first blush, Mr. Mulcair appears to be doing the right things: releasing a book to start telling his personal story, running an advertising campaign to soften his harder edges, and expanding his tour activities to boost name recognition in swing seats.

Will all of this help Mr. Mulcair become Prime Minister?

Ultimately, I don’t think so. But I do think that Mr. Mulcair can further solidify the perception of the NDP as the most credible alternative going into the election campaign, and this can only help him as we get closer to October.  

About The Salon

Blair McCreadie is past president of the Ontario PC Party (2002-2008) and a partner with Dentons Canada LLP.; Marit Stiles is a federal and Ontario NDP strategist; Bernie Farber is a former Ontario Liberal candidate and one of Canada's leading human rights experts.
Posted date : May 27, 2015

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