Mulcair’s NDP: The New Liberal Party

Mulcair’s NDP: The New Liberal Party

The wider reality is that there is little evidence of mass movements of resistance in Canada, outside of Quebec, that could challenge the rightward drift of the NDP or build a movement to defeat Harper in the streets or via the ballot box. Due to the nature of Canadian federalism, many of the struggles will remain provincial in scope.

Tom Mulcair: Liberal Roots, Mainstream Appeal

Mulcair was a safe choice to take over the NDP leadership after the death of Jack Layton. Mulcair won the leadership because he’s an experienced politician, he’s bilingual, he’s from Quebec, he has a seat in the House of Commons and he ran a steady leadership campaign. Thus far, from the perspective of the NDP, Mulcair’s leadership has worked out just fine. The party is doing well in the polls and seems united behind the leader.

Still, it’s hard to shake the perception that Mulcair would make an excellent leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He’s a lawyer with a mildly-progressive Catholic (Irish Canadian and French Canadian) background. He presents himself as fiscally responsible but with a social conscience and supportive of sustainable development. He has repeatedly presented himself and his party as competent public administrators.

The mainstream media has taken notice and given Mulcair some nods of approval. In July, the British magazine, The Economist, which famously skewered former Liberal leader Paul Martin as Mr. Dithers, admitted that: “There are…tentative signs that the opposition is becoming more credible…Thomas Mulcair, has started well, imposing party discipline, dropping leftist talk and moving towards the centre.” This fall, Maclean’s magazine presented a long and rather glowing front-page profile of Mulcair. The profile provided an interesting discussion of his Liberal roots. Not only did he serve in the provincial cabinet of Jean Charest, but his parents were Liberals and his great-great-grandfather was Honoré Mercier, a Liberal premier of Quebec from 1887 to 1891. Furthermore, we are told that Claude Ryan, the former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, was “Mulcair’s most influential mentor.” Obviously, the line that Mulcair was a provincial Liberal merely of convenience, since he’s a federalist, is a major understatement.

Recently, in the National Post, John Ivison admitted that “it’s hard to set up the NDP as a threat to civilization when they keep voting for the [Harper] government’s legislation.” As a result, Ivison suggested “the loony left is loony no longer.” Similarly, another Post columnist, Jonathan Kay, praised “today’s more disciplined, centrist NDP” for refusing to offer any support for former NDP MP Jim Manly, detained by Israeli authorities for his participation on the Canadian Boat to Gaza. Not surprisingly, New Democrats failed to stick their necks out to support Palestine during the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, offering only a vague call for a “balanced and constructive approach in the Middle East.”

On the economic policy front, Globe and Mail columnist Bruce Anderson has praised Mulcair for “shedding the party’s traditional orthodoxy” and taking “another large step towards the centre of the Canadian political spectrum” by supporting free trade deals with Jordan, the European Union, Japan and other countries.

With accolades coming from “friends” like this, it’s no wonder that many on the Left in Canada are less than thrilled by Mulcair’s leadership.

Pipelines If Necessary, But Not Necessarily Pipelines

Mulcair’s highest profile policy stance has been to raise alarm bells over the “Dutch disease” or the impact of the domestic oil sector in raising the value of the Canadian dollar and hurting the competitiveness of Canadian manufacturing. Such comments were attacked by the federal government and the premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC. The governing Saskatchewan Party of Brad Wall has recently taken the unusual step of running attack ads against Mulcair amid the provincial NDP’s leadership race. Despite the bitter denunciations of his political foes, the reality is that Mulcair’s energy position is actually quite modest.

Mulcair hasn’t presented an outright critique or rejection of tar sands development. Rather he speaks of “managing the challenges and opportunities” of the tar sands through the introduction of a cap and trade system, the removal of subsidies, and supporting international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions. A cap and trade system to put a price on carbon emissions is supported by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and, despite their bizarre contortions at present, was formerly endorsed by the Harper Conservatives from 2004 to at least 2009.

On the issue of pipelines, Mulcair opposes the Keystone XL pipeline to the US gulf coast and the North Gateway project to the BC coast. But in September he told a business audience at the Canadian Club in Toronto that “New Democrats support recent proposals to increase West-East pipeline capacity.” In other words, he supports the idea of a new pipeline from Alberta to eastern Canada in order to create Canadian refinery jobs and encourage Canadian energy security and independence. While the business community would like to see pipelines built to supply the US and Asian markets, a new trans-Canadian pipeline is a business friendly proposal.

When Mulcair speaks of balanced economic growth, he includes the development of the tar sands, new pipelines and the growth of oil refinery jobs. He is certainly not presenting an anti-tar sands, radical green energy program and he has offered few details about how he would encourage or support sustainable manufacturing jobs.

One promising sign is the evidence of renewed and growing social activism around the tar sands, the proposed pipelines and climate change. Examples include the recent “Defend Our Coast” protests in BC and the Power Shift conference in Ottawa. A crucial component must be on-going coalition building with First Nation communities whose land continues to be colonized through resource exploration and pipeline development. These climate justice movements, and others like them, will continue to be the leading edge of the struggle, not Mulcair or the NDP.

The NDP and Quebec: Uneasy Allies

The federal NDP has 58 seats in Quebec. Mulcair’s potential for holding that Quebec base was one of the key factors in his leadership win. However, many tensions and questions remain. Amid the historic student strike, the federal NDP and its sizable Quebec caucus were noticeably quiet. While Mulcair explained that the tuition issue was provincial in nature, it was also consistent with the NDP’s traditional practice of distancing themselves from extra-parliamentary activism.

Members of the media continue to question the NDP about its position on the federal Clarity Act which purports to deal with the process of Quebec independence and attempts to give the federal government a role in determining the acceptability of the referendum question (a “clear” question) and the referendum mandate (a “clear” majority). The Clarity Act, which ironically offers no clarity on anything, is generally opposed by Quebec nationalists and has been the subject of controversy and divisions within the NDP.

The NDP’s own official position on Quebec, as outlined in the Sherbrooke Declaration, recognizes Quebec’s right to self-determination and recognizes 50 percent plus one in a referendum as a mandate for independence. Is the Sherbrooke Declaration compatible or consistent with the Clarity Act? Thus far, the NDP has said yes, but not everyone inside or outside the party buys that. There remain New Democrats opposed to the Clarity Act.

On the other hand, advocates of the Clarity Act in the Conservative and Liberal parties and in the mainstream media argue that the Sherbrooke Declaration is too accommodating to the process of Quebec’s right to self-determination. A Bloc Québécois MP recently introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons calling for the repeal of the act. The Bloc’s goal is to force the NDP to clarify its own position and hopefully reveal any internal divisions. The federal NDP is likely to reinforce its own support for the Clarity Act, alongside the Sherbrooke Declaration.

Another issue that reveals some of the tensions with the NDP’s Quebec base is the question of forming a provincial New Democratic Party in Quebec. Back in August, during the Quebec election campaign, Mulcair suggested that the NDP would form a provincial party in Quebec before the subsequent election that would presumably take place in four years. Now, with a minority government in Quebec making another election likely to be much sooner Mulcair has backed off from that suggestion and stated that defeating Harper is the priority.

While the minority Quebec government is undoubtedly the major factor in this decision, there were also divisions among federal New Democratic supporters in Quebec. Mulcair hopes to create a leftist federalist option in Quebec provincial politics, many supporters of the federal NDP in Quebec are already supporters of Québec Solidaire, which is a more solidly left party and has close links with the social movements in Quebec. An NDP attempt to form a provincial wing could disrupt the growing strength of Québec Solidaire and divide the left in Quebec, with possible negative repercussions for the NDP itself.

Toward the Next Election: Whither “Democratic Socialism”?

By the next federal election, scheduled for 2015 – but it could be sooner, the NDP is likely to be in office in BC and has an outside chance in Ontario. Provincial NDP leaders Adrian Dix and Andrea Horwath have both shifted their parties to the right. The last time the NDP experience a simultaneous provincial breakthrough in Ontario and BC in 1990-91 (under Bob Rae and Mike Harcourt) it actually hindered the federal party, rather than helping it. If provincial NDP governments are elected again in these provinces with little to offer beyond managing neoliberalism in a context of stagnant economic growth, the results could again be politically disappointing for NDP voters. In short, beyond the Quebec situation mentioned above, provincial developments will continue to affect the federal scene.

Since winning the leadership, Mulcair has not been explicitly transforming or modernizing the NDP. However, the NDP’s next federal convention, which should be held in 2013, will be interesting. Under Layton’s leadership there was a movement to remove the references to “democratic socialism” from the preamble of the party’s constitution. That debate is likely to re-emerge as the party begins its final preparations for an election and anticipates Conservative attack ads.

Of course, the removal of references to socialism from the NDP’s constitution would be a historic decision and would signal its transformation and modernization. But can anyone argue that these changes haven’t already been made within the party? Does anyone really think the NDP can accurately be described as “socialist”?

The federal NDP does retain important ties to organized labour. For a clear indication of this, one merely needs to look at the institutional links to the labour leadership via the party’s executive and federal council. However, for Mulcair, this is something to finesse rather than embrace. Immediately after speaking to the BC Federation of Labour convention in late November, Mulcair told reporters that his party also works with banks and oil companies and represents the “public interest” rather than any specific group or interest.

Under Mulcair’s leadership an NDP government would hardly be poised to break with neoliberalism. Getting rid of Harper remains a necessary but insufficient goal for the Left. More significant victories will need to be the result of social mobilization rather than merely replacing the Conservatives with the NDP. In that light, Part II of this article will examine some of the emerging battles against austerity in Canada.

Murray Cooke is a member of CUPE local 3903, the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly and the New Democratic Party. He recently co-authored Left Turn in Canada? The NDP Breakthrough and the Future of Canadian Politics with Dennis Pilon, for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. His article for
New Socialist on “Teachers’ Strikes and the Fight Against Austerity in Ontario” includes an assessment of the Ontario NDP.