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Mulcair's out. How did it happen and what's next?

Photo: flickr/Matt Jiggins

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Canada's New Democrats are now a party in search of a leader.

Through most of its history, the NDP, and its predecessor, the CCF, focused more on party and program than on the singular magic of leadership.

Leader-obsession was for the old-line parties, concerned about power and nothing but power.

Tommy Douglas is a legendary figure in the New Democratic Party, these days.

And yet, in his time, Douglas suffered some fairly bruising defeats.

On two occasions, the NDP's first leader even lost the seat he was seeking: once in Saskatchewan, the province where he had been elected and re-elected premier five times, and once in British Columbia.

Despite those electoral disappointments, the party grassroots never called for Douglas' head.

When Douglas took his leave, it was in his own time and of his own volition.

And after ceding the leadership to David Lewis, Douglas stayed on for a number of years as a respected MP and party elder statesman.

Layton's success changed the NDP's image of itself

In truth, in those days, the party's electoral ambitions were fairly modest.

It sought to do better each time than it had the last, and its main goal was to expand its political footprint beyond the NDP heartland in the west and a few pockets in Ontario.

Layton's success in 2011 changed all that.

NDPers started to believe in their party as one of government, not protest and moral suasion.

That was a good part of the reason for choosing Mulcair to succeed Layton in 2012.

Four years ago, the bearded, fast-talking and sometimes acerbic MP from Outremont looked to a good many in the party like a politician's politician, and that's the kind of leader they wanted.

Mulcair was a pro, who had cut his teeth in the rough and tumble of the Quebec National Assembly, and who had held a high-profile cabinet post in a provincial government.

It may not have been an NDP government, but that was almost an asset for a party that wanted Canadian voters to believe it was now mainstream and fully ready for the rigours and exigencies of power.

Mulcair seemed to have the quickness of wit, mental agility and killer instinct the other candidates lacked, most particularly the establishment's favourite, back room denizen Brian Topp.

Many party members shuddered at the thought of a vague and bumbling Topp engaging Stephen Harper -- and the next Liberal leader, whoever that might be --in the cut and thrust of debate.

Mulcair looked like he would relish the challenge, and the party went for him enthusiastically.

The new leader's first test, his acceptance speech, fell flat; but in subsequent media interviews, and especially in the House, he performed with aplomb.

Opinion polls soon showed the NDP level pegging or even leading the governing Conservatives.

Then along came Justin Trudeau.

Hard to fight the media's preoccupation with celebrity

The media loved the new, young Liberal star, and gave him and his party much more attention than the official opposition and its tough and resilient leader.

Journalists on the Hill readily admitted that their bosses demanded that they see Trudeau's name and face as much as possible. They believed the newest Canadian version of political charisma helped boost circulation and ratings.

Canada had not seen a political figure with such star power for a long time -- not since the era of the current prime minister's father.

The NDP kept its cool in the midst of the media frenzy. It did not panic, though many NDP MPs felt hard done by, victims of a fickle and shallow mainstream media culture.

Mulcair continued to impress in the House, especially when he assumed his prosecutor's stance on such matters as the Senate scandals.

But, for most of the period running up to the 2015 election, it was the Liberals, not the New Democrats, who looked like the obvious alternative to the Harper government. At least, that's what opinion polling said.

That only changed -- temporarily, as it turned out -- with Harper's anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.

Trudeau's Liberals almost tripped over themselves in their rush to support it, although they added, without much conviction, that they would fix it once in power.

The Liberals tried to change the subject. The real issue facing Canada is neither terrorism nor human rights they said. It is the future of the middle class.

New Democrats took their time before deciding to oppose C-51, which some opinion polls showed had overwhelming public support.

NDP leader Mulcair's position was not motivated by short-term political calculations. He knew Canadians seemed to welcome what they took to be a hard line on terrorism. Fighting C-51 was not an obvious way for the NDP to increase its polling numbers and get back in the political game. It looked to be quite the contrary.

Mulcair gained respect for standing up for principle

But as people got to know what was in C-51 more came to respect Mulcair's principled stand. Trudeau, in comparison, appeared to be something of a callow opportunist, especially to young people. And his and his party's position did not even make sense.

In a majority Parliament, many asked, why vote for  a bill that will pass in any event, if you say you disagree with big pieces of it?

The Liberal stance looked too clever by half, made worse by Trudeau's inability to coherently defend it, and it raised already existing doubts about the young Liberal leader's maturity and judgement.

Mulcair looked like the adult, in comparison, and suddenly, a little less than a year ago, the polls started to reflect that perception.

The Alberta election helped too.

By late spring, the NDP and Mulcair were the new solution de rechange.

They were heady days for the party.

At the press gallery dinner in May the New Democrats in attendance were exultant.

Anne McGrath, who had worked on Rachel Notley's recent campaign in Alberta, was there, and New Democrats were buzzing around her, soaking up the reflected glory.

For Trudeau's Liberals, now in unaccustomed third place, it was their turn to keep their cool.

They unveiled their democratic reform platform, where Trudeau famously said the next election would be the last fought under first-past-the-post, and got some good press.  And they doggedly pursued their middle class focused economic agenda.

Meanwhile, finding themselves so much in the pollsters' favour seemed to go to New Democrats' heads.

It was, in large measure, being bold and principled on C-51 that got them where they were, but they seemed to forget that fact.

Instead, the NDP decided to throw boldness to the wind and adopted the stance of a cautious frontrunner protecting its lead.

This was five months before the actual election, and in retrospect made no sense whatsoever.

A puzzlingly cautious election strategy, plus the Niqab

Mulcair and his advisors believed the NDP needed not to inspire voters, but rather to reassure, comfort and sooth them.

And so we had a balanced budget pledge and a suite of policies that looked decidedly modest.

The Liberals went bold, promising deficits, and their more risky strategy seemed to work -- especially when coupled with a leader who discovered his aggressive and combative side.

During the election campaign Mulcair the tough parliamentary prosecutor became Tom-the-cat-with-a-forced-smile.

Still, if it weren't for the Niqab brouhaha late in the campaign we might have a Liberal-NDP coalition government today.

Antipathy to the Niqab turned out to be a dagger through the heart of the NDP in much of Quebec.

Francophone voters, who might consider themselves to be social democrats, did not find it contradictory to believe all people should be obliged to uncover their faces when voting or taking a citizenship oath.

Quebeckers, and especially French-speaking Quebeckers, did not share the consensus view among progressives in English Canada that whatever one's feelings about the Niqab, it was, at heart, a rights issue.

The Quebec position was similar to that of the French of France, who, from the far left to the far right, believe people should uncover their faces in public, full stop, and no exceptions.

The Niqab controversy resulted in tanking poll numbers for the NDP in Quebec, which, in turn, created something of a stampede toward the Liberals on the part of the many voters whose over-riding goal was to get rid of the Harper regime.

The rest is history, and this past weekend's convention provided the closing chapter on this historic episode.

The NDP's embrace of Mulcair was always based on the practical calculation that he was best equipped to bring the party to power.

When he failed to do that he could not fall back on residual affection for him as a long time and loyal servant of the party.

There may have been respect, but there was little affection.

Many choices, but the Leap Manifesto debate might overshadow all

Now the party will start looking for a new knight on a white charger, and the most promising names seem to be two that are closely associated with the Leap manifesto: Megan Leslie, the former Halifax MP and deputy leader, and media personality (and prominent scion) Avi Lewis.

Neither would get much support in Alberta, and Lewis is still, apparently, working on his French. It almost boggles the mind that a young person, from a progressive family in Toronto, would not have, almost automatically, become bilingual along the way. But that seems to be the case with David Lewis' grandson. The grandfather was, by the way, fluently bilingual.

Nathan Cullen and Peter Julian are both very comfortable in Canada's two official languages, and both have strong parliamentary credentials.

Niki Ashton still seems somewhat on the young side, but has worked hard in Parliament, while Alexandre Boulerice from Montreal impressed almost the moment he first stood up in the House to ask a question. Boulerice's English -- not bad, but not that fluent -- might be a bit of a problem.

Guy Caron, still an MP from Rimouski in eastern Quebec, and Françoise Boivin, the former Gatineau MP and frontbencher, would both make creditable Quebec candidates.

Even if a candidate from Quebec does not win it all this time, the party has to hope there will be at least one good one to show it is still a vital force in Quebec.

Brian Topp's name still comes up. He was Ed Broadbent's choice last time, and came second to Mulcair. To this writer, he seems almost completely lacking in the basic performance talents political leaders require in this day and age.

Charlie Angus, from Northern Ontario, is a great communicator, one of the best in the NDP's caucus; but he too does not, to all appearances, speak much French.

It will be interesting to see to what extent the leadership race is defined by the Leap manifesto, which is only, at this stage, aspirational.

Riding associations are now supposed to grapple with Leap, while a leadership process gets underway.

And then, what will Notley and her Alberta colleagues do? They were unambiguous in their opposition to Leap, in any way shape or form, but are unlikely to follow columnist Don Braid's suggestion and disaffiliate with the national NDP.

The party faces some potentially tumultuous and uncertain times.

One thing is certain: They will not be boring.

 

Photo: flickr/Matt Jiggins

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