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The mystery of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's long fall: Why didn't he see it coming?

Thomas Mulcair

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EDMONTON, Alberta

The astonishing thing about yesterday's NDP leadership review vote is that an obviously smart guy like Thomas Mulcair seems not to have seen it coming.

At least until the few hours before last weekend's national New Democratic Party convention in Edmonton, the federal NDP leader acted as if he were on cruise control, confident that despite the party's sorry performance in last fall's federal election its 1,768 delegates would happily extend his tenure on the job.

Because, let's face it, when a political leader says he'll hang in there if he gets the endorsement of 70 per cent of a convention's delegates, that's a pretty strong indication he expects to get about 70 per cent support.

When the leader in question then gets the support of only 48 per cent, as happened to Mulcair yesterday morning at the Shaw Convention Centre, that is evidence of an epic blunder.

Yet this is precisely what happened. The error was arguably more severe and less excusable than Mulcair's miscalculation last fall when he adopted a hard Conservative line on budget deficits and thereby opened the door to the sunny arrival of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his deficit-accepting Liberals.

Surely it was easier to misread the intentions of the entire electorate in a geographically huge and culturally diverse country like Canada than it was to get it so wrong about the inner thoughts of his own party's delegates, with whom any competent leader should be in touch!

Whatever else Mulcair may be, he is not unintelligent. His performance as Opposition Leader in the last Parliament proves that. So the mystery at the heart of yesterday's dramatic turn in his political fortunes is how he managed to get it so grievously wrong for so long.

Coming into the convention, as we have seen in national news coverage, Mulcair seemed to have the support of the leaders of most major unions, who still play a big role in the federal party, if not that of executives of labour central organizations like the Canadian Labour Congress and provincial labour federations.

It also seemed reasonable he would get the backing of the large local contingent of centrist Alberta New Democrats, still fired up by the victory of Premier Rachel Notley's provincial government 11 months ago although deeply concerned about the severe impact of a flagging economy driven by low oil prices in their home province.

These groups were at the heart of the significant constituency that opposed the plan passed anyway first thing yesterday to spend two years debating the so-called Leap Manifesto, which calls for Canada to wean itself from fossil fuels in one generation, and to ignore Notley's passionate plea the day before for support for a pipeline to market Alberta's oil.

Along they way, Leap advocates had a little help from Stephen Lewis, 78, leader of the Ontario New Democrats in the 1970s and son of a former national NDP leader, who tried to undercut Notley's arguments in his convention speech Saturday evening.

The success of the Leap resolution is a potential disaster for Notley's government. It will certainly lead to an ugly week in Question Period as conservative politicians advance the argument her government is hopelessly linked to an anti-Alberta federal party. They were Tweeting such claims within 10 minutes of the vote on the Manifesto.

Yet Mulcair made no gesture to his potential Alberta supporters that indicated he doubted the wisdom of leaving the province's resources in the ground -- a notion Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan compared in debate yesterday to Pierre Trudeau's oft-reviled National Energy Program.

Nor was there anything in Mulcair's speech soon after that divisive debate to reassure them.

Given this, one has to wonder if Mulcair felt he was assured of the support of the Leap Manifesto's constituency for some reason.

In the event, as the shocking outcome of yesterday's vote illustrates, he got nothing in return for effectively chasing away the support of many Alberta and union delegates that might have been enough to save his bacon. As the final numbers make clear, he didn't get the votes he presumably expected from the Leap document's supporters either.

Postmedia political columnist Michael Den Tandt hinted yesterday a game's afoot, with the removal of Mulcair setting the stage for the triumphant arrival of filmmaker and environmental activist Avi Lewis, Stephen Lewis's son, as a candidate. Avi Lewis is married to journalist and author Naomi Klein. Two years of discussion of these issues would be a natural springboard for his candidacy.

If that is indeed what is happening, NDP advocates of the centrist approach pioneered by the late Jack Layton and embodied by Notley's government are unlikely to let it pass unchallenged.

Leap resolution passage sparks fury among many Alberta Dippers

Officially, Premier Rachel Notley's government and its supporters in the ranks of federal NDP are shrugging off passage by federal NDP convention delegates yesterday of a resolution to continue the party debate on the Leap Manifesto as no big deal, just something that will be discussed locally by constituency associations.

"At the end of the day, Alberta's an energy province and that's not going to change," Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous said mildly yesterday. "We need to get our product to tidewater, and we're going to continue to work on that."

Behind the scenes, however, many supporters and members of the Notley government were furious. There is already discussion among Alberta NDP activists of calling for formal separation of the Alberta NDP from the federal party during the provincial general meeting in June.

"I don't think this is something that will lead to that outcome any time soon," Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman said cautiously yesterday.

But adoption by federal party delegates from elsewhere in Canada of the Leap resolution is bound to be seen by many as an endorsement of its controversial contents and a deadly threat to the Alberta NDP Government's survival, not to mention that of the environmental policies it has already implemented.

Yesterday, it was being openly described as a stab in the back, and in more colourful terms:

"The question isn't, 'Do we have a fight?' We have to have a fight," one prominent Alberta New Democrat told me. "The question is, 'Do we burn down the house?' What else can we do? They came out here and pissed in our backyard!"

Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, this could get quite interesting.

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

 

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