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Pipeline perceptions, percentages and past Parliamentary performance dog NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in Alberta’s capital

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EDMONTON, Alberta

This probably isn't a very nice way to put it, but the question everyone in Edmonton was asking themselves yesterday about Thomas Mulcair was, "How low can he go?"

There are tantalizing hints, but no way to know for sure how the embattled federal New Democratic Party Leader will do when the 1,800 or so delegates to the party's national convention vote tomorrow on whether or not he must undergo a leadership review.

There's a cruel and mysterious political calculus to such votes: Above a certain imprecise threshold they're a powerful endorsement. Below it, a leader is a goner. In between, the leader may have to slay a political dragon or two to keep the job, but it's possible.

Adding to the confusion, it's a moving target, varying from party to party, and from time to time and place to place. Between 2006 and 2011, the late Jack Layton got endorsements of 92, 89 and 98 per cent at federal NDP conventions.

But a respectable sounding 77 per cent was too low to guarantee the survival of two Alberta Tory premiers – Alison Redford and Ed Stelmach – the last time their party’s members took a close look at their respective performances. Another, Ralph Klein, departed almost immediately after getting the endorsement of only 55 per cent.

Back in January 1983, 66.9 per cent wasn't enough to save former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark's sorry prospects at the party bunfest in Winnipeg after he'd spent two disappointing years back in opposition. Clark called a leadership convention later the same year and lost to Brian Mulroney.

In 2013, after winning the leadership race that followed Layton's death in August 2011, Mulcair got a 93-per-cent endorsement from his party. He won't get anything like that this time. He'll be very lucky, it's said here, if he gets … 66.9 per cent, let alone 77.

Still, half a year of lowered expectations after being busted back to third party status in what was surely the most disappointing election result in the NDP's history -- even if it's also one of the best in numbers of MPs alone -- 77 per cent would be interpreted as a hearty endorsement for Mulcair, and even 66.9 might be acceptable.

Just to confuse matters, the question delegates will be voting on is whether to hold a formal leadership review, so a strong ”Yes" vote is a "No" vote for Mulcair.

The prevailing consensus on the convention floor in Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre yesterday? There wasn't one. Ask anyone there what they thought would happen tomorrow, and predictions ranged from about 50 per cent for Mulcair to the mid-70s.

Mulcair seems to have set the bar for himself about 70 per cent -- but here's betting that, unlike Clark, he won’t throw in the towel if he tallies support a hair below that.

Indeed, that's another question New Democrats were asking themselves yesterday: What happens if Mulcair's support falls into that murky range, will he stay or go? And if he goes, who the heck will replace him?

"He'll quit, there's no doubt," one well informed observer told me. "He’s too stubborn, there's no way he'll quit," said another, presumably equally in touch with the pulse of the party.

We'll see. One thing is certain -- the party is divided on this question.

Former leadership candidate Peggy Nash railed at Mulcair's campaign results in a Huffington Post contribution on Tuesday.

"Our national NDP campaign let us down in spectacular fashion," she wrote. "That it was so tone deaf to the mood of the nation and ultimately so incompetent in its campaign offer to Canadians, was simply heartbreaking. At the historic moment when Canadians overwhelmingly wanted change, our national campaign appeared to want to match the tone and approach of the Conservatives." That sums up the party Left's basic position.

Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, struck a similar note, telling the Globe and Mail in an interview the day before that Mulcair doesn't deserve another term as leader and forecasting he'll receive less than 60 per cent.

This sparked a blistering response Thursday from Doug O'Halloran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 and one of the most influential union leaders in Alberta.

"I was shocked and disappointed by your comments in the Globe and Mail," O'Halloran told Yussuff in the letter, which was circulating widely at the convention. "Eighty per cent of the CLC union affiliate presidents are backing Mr. Mulcair to remain as leader. Who are you to be critical of this endorsement in the public via the media? … You do realize that you're saying the leaders of these unions don’t know what they’re talking about and you do? I find this totally unacceptable, irresponsible and frankly stupid."

O'Halloran closed the missive by telling the CLC leader he was "effectively contributing to the destruction of the New Democratic Party and only the Liberals will gain from your ill-conceived negative comments."

Meanwhile, cabinet and caucus members of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP Government are far from happy with Mulcair's equivocal attitude about a pipeline to move Alberta petroleum resources to a salt-water port. They see success on this file as an existential issue for their government. Many of them were working the floor at convention pushing the need for a pipeline -- and it’s hard to imagine that effort won't translate into votes against Mulcair's leadership.

Representatives of the party's left wing -- surprisingly strong in supposedly conservative Alberta -- are furious at Mulcair’s adoption of the Tory position on deficits before the disastrous Oct. 19 federal election, which allowed the Liberals of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to outflank the party on the left just at the moment Canadian voters were moving that way.

With something like 500 signed-up delegates from Alberta, there probably couldn't be a more difficult piece of terrain in Canada right now for Mulcair to face this test than Edmonton. Who knew, when the NDP chose by happenstance to hold its convention in Alberta, that a lot of members here would soon be in a mood to smash some crockery?

Image credit: Flickr/laurelrusswurm

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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