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Two anti-Harper parties confront each other today: What to do?

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A reader who says he has "long supported both the NDP and the Liberals" writes:

"I think the most important decision facing the NDP is whether they will focus all of their money and attention fighting Harper, or whether they will divide their focus by fighting Trudeau. If they go after Trudeau, they are simply assisting Harper... Early signals are not encouraging..."

When he says "early signals" the reader must mean today’s byelections, in Canada’s two biggest cities, where the New Democrats and Liberals have been going after each other hammer and tong.

There are two other byelections in Manitoba. These are traditional Conservative seats, but, in one of them, Brandon-Souris, all the polls show the Liberal candidate ahead of Harper’s man.

Most of the national media attention has been focused on the Toronto byelection in Toronto Centre. The two star candidates, Linda McQuaig for the NDP and Chrystia Freeland for the Liberals, are both accomplished writers and journalists.

Leaving aside partisan considerations, McQuaig would seem the better choice, since she has made her life and very accomplished career in downtown Toronto, and, by rights, should have a much more intimate grasp than Freeland of the real life concerns of Toronto Centre’s citizens.

Freeland is, like former Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, someone who seemed to feel Canada was too small for her big ambitions. She has spent almost her entire professional life outside of Canada, hobnobbing with the elite she recently wrote about quite witheringly.

Both candidates have written extensively, and eloquently, on the subject of inequality.

Freeland’s work is almost entirely descriptive. When it comes to prescriptions, she makes only vague allusions to "market solutions."

In her writings, McQuaig has presented fairly detailed policy options, including raising taxes on the super-rich. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is not in favour of raising anyone’s personal income taxes, and McQuaig has stopped talking about that particular, concrete measure.

Maybe that is why the NDP candidate did not make herself available to be interviewed for Althia Raj’s piece on the inequality issue in the Toronto Centre byelection for Huffington Post.

Or perhaps McQuaig worried that since Justin Trudeau became leader, Raj has been something of a cheerleader for the Liberals. Based on the article, the NDP candidate did not have cause to worry.

Raj’s piece is fair. It extensively quotes Ed Broadbent and others who do not think Freeland or her leader are proposing effective policies when it comes to inequality.

Indeed, Freeland quite candidly admits to Raj that she is not yet ready to spell out what sort of anti-inequality policies she or her party might pursue.

This is quite in line with the current Liberal tactic of standing for as little as possible, while focusing almost exclusively on the appealing personality of the Leader.

Potential upset in Montreal?

While English Canadian media see Toronto Centre as the main battleground, Montreal’s Bourassa riding might just be the one to watch, based both on the little polling data available and on the election results last time.

There have not been many polls, and most of those have been conducted by one firm, using automated calls to landlines. In other words, there are lots of reasons to doubt their accuracy.

When you look at the 2011 election results, however, you see that the NDP had strong second place finishes in both Toronto Centre and Bourassa, against truly star candidates: Bob Rae and Denis Coderre, now Mayor of Montreal.

But the results were quite a bit closer in Bourassa than in Toronto Centre. Coderre won by a little over 3,000 votes compared to Rae’s 8,000.

And, for whatever they are worth, polls have not shown much movement in Toronto Centre since the start of the campaign. Freeland has maintained a double digit lead over McQuaig.

In Bourassa, on the other hand, the polls have moved and they seem to show momentum for the NDP’s Stéphane Moraille running against Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg.

Bourassa is a largely working-class riding in the northeast of Montreal. It is ethnically diverse, with a significant Haitian population of about 14 per cent.

The riding also neighbours Justin Trudeau’s Papineau riding, which the Liberals hoped would create a spillover effect in their favour. However, spillover may not be too much of a factor in a race that, at the end, has become, in the words of Montreal’s La Presse, "trench warfare."

How do the opposition parties actually differ anyway?

Byelections are notoriously local and usually focused, to a far greater extent than general elections, on the personal qualities of the candidates. Today’s byelections, despite the national interest and significant party leader presence, may be no different.

They may be essentially local affairs with little national meaning.

Some citizens in these ridings might, nonetheless, want to use their votes to express their views on the performances of the parties in the current Parliament.

Starting with the governing Conservatives -- well it seems you either really love them or you really don’t.

If omnibus bills, attacks on unions, stifling of science and indifference to the environment -- not to mention voter suppression tactics -- are your thing, Prime Minister Harper’s candidates are waiting for your vote.

As for the two main opposition parties, there are some big differences between them. However, overall, they have voted the same way in the current Parliament.

The Liberal Party and the NDP voted together against almost all the Conservatives have put forward, from nasty refugee reforms to massive cuts to environmental oversight.

There are some differences, of course.

Unlike the NDP, the Liberals have not unequivocally promised to restore payment of Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement to age 65, and they are more enthusiastic about trade agreements.

Still, on that latter point the difference is narrow.

While the NDP may be skeptical about free trade with Europe, it is quite open to that prospect and not a priori opposed.

The Liberals do not favour abolition of the Senate, unlike the NDP. The whole issue is a bit of red herring, however, because regardless of party policies, given the Canadian constitution, abolition of the upper house would be something almost impossible to accomplish.

At the same time, the Liberals claim they and the NDP differ radically on what to do in the case of a sovereignty referendum in Quebec. That difference is not, in fact, nearly as big as the Liberals try to claim it is -- if you look closely at the policies of the two parties.

Mostly, the Liberals use the referendum conditions issue as a kind of latter-day version of the "soft on separatism" attack. It happens to be an accusation that is monstrously unfair when leveled against NDP Leader Mulcair, given his long record as a near-ferocious opponent of Quebec separation.

What happens in the House

Where you do see a big and significant difference between the NDP and the Liberals is in the way the two opposition parties have performed in the current Parliament.

During the many years it was a third (or fourth) party, the NDP took Parliament very seriously. NDP members were known, in general, to be diligent and earnest, nearly to a fault.

They were members who worked hard on debates in the House and participated knowledgeably in committees. In short, the NDP, despite its relatively lowly status in terms of seats, often punched way above its weight.

During the first year and some of the current Parliament, the Liberals, under interim Leader Bob Rae, almost seemed to assume the mantle of the NDP of old.

Rae’s performance in the House was consistent and effective -- to the point that NDPers would complain the media treated him as the true Leader of the Opposition.

As well, Rae gave some of his front bench members, such as Carolyn Bennett on First Nations and Kirsty Duncan on the environment, fairly free reign, and they were effective both in the House and on committee.

That all changed with the advent of the new leader, Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau acts as though he is permanently engaged in "retail politics," out there pressing the flesh in shopping malls, day in, day out. To him, it seems that the seat of Canada’s democracy, Parliament, hardly matters.

When Trudeau does bother to show up in the House, he labours with some difficulty through scripted questions, sometimes booting his key lines.

The Liberal Leader leaves the heavy lifting in Parliament to others, such as Marc Garneau and, especially, Ralph Goodale.

The shift in the Liberal approach from Rae to Trudeau has been, in fact, quite dramatic, and not in a good way. That story has been obscured by Trudeau’s heady poll numbers, which seem to have hypnotized many in the Ottawa press corps as well as many among the Ottawa insider class.

Mulcair’s NDP has, by contrast, been, in general, disciplined and effective in Parliament.

Of late, many Canadians have taken note of the NDP Leader’s strong performance on the Duffy-Wright-Prime-Minister’s-Office scandal. Mulcair has show doggedness and tenacity in his questioning of the Prime Minister, yes, but he has also managed a measure of wit, and even, at times, some terse eloquence.

If an Opposition Leader’s confidence in debate, grasp of the facts and ease with words (in both English and French) is indicative of his promise as a leader of government, Mulcair would make a fine Prime Minister.

And the NDP in Parliament is far from a one-man show.

The Official Opposition’s other strong performers, both in the House and in committees, include Nathan Cullen as House Leader, who has demonstrated remarkable composure in dealing with what can often be a bullying majority government; Megan Leslie on the environment; Libby Davies on health; Peter Stoffer on veterans; Don Davies on trade; Peggy Nash and Guy Caron on finance; Hélène Laverdière on international development; Françoise Boivin on justice; Jack Harris on defence; and, of course, the indefatigable team of Alexandre Boulerice and Charlie Angus on ethics in government.

You cannot judge what kind of government a party might provide based only on its performance in opposition, of course. Doing so would be more than a bit unfair to the current third party in Parliament.

The Liberals have a mere 35 members to the NDP’s 100. Many of the Liberals’ leading lights, such as Ken Dryden, lost their seats in the last election. The current third party could have great bench strength, out in the country, which just does not happen to be in the House -- yet. That explains why Trudeau has taken the trouble to recruit star candidates such as Chrystia Freeland and former general Andrew Leslie this far from a general election.

However, let’s imagine byelection voters did want to opt for an opposition party that seemed ready to walk into government, tomorrow, if need be.

Based on its performance in Parliament, to date, that party would have to be the NDP.

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