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Despite being third place in the polls, the NDP should not panic

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Photo: flickr/Matt Jiggins

Ok. Here's a shocker. The Parliamentary Correspondent for rabble.ca is going to write a piece making much the same point as ubiquitous right-of-centre commentator Tasha Kheiriddin.

This writer just had a look at Kheiriddin's National Post column of Friday, December 5 --  "Mulcair Pushed the Panic Button" -- then turned away from his screen, and said (to himself): "Damn, just what I planned to say!"

Kheiriddin talks about the unavoidable fact that the NDP remains in third place in every national opinion poll and that we could have an election as early as this coming spring.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair is, by the National Post columnist's lights, "desperate" to distinguish himself from the Liberals.

That's why the NDP leader (rhetorically) jumped high, last week, when Justice Minister Peter MacKay said something thoughtless and heedless about "not knowing why" the Montreal massacre happened 25 years ago.

People in Quebec, and women throughout Canada, know what motivated killer Marc Lepine: hatred of women, and Mulcair was quick to say so.

Why bring up gun control now?

More to the point, the need to distinguish himself from the Justin Trudeau Liberals is one reason why Mulcair pledged to restore a version of the long gun registry.

Trudeau has said unambiguously that his party they will not revisit the gun control issue. That's all part of the Liberals' play-it-safe, front-runner strategy. Their plan seems to be to neither do nor say anything that might offend any significant group. The Liberals hope to win the next election by being the friendly, innocuous, bland and inoffensive party.

Mulcair and his New Democrats are committed to taking a more hard-edged, policy-focused approach. In a way, they have no choice. The New Democrats could not win a celebrity and personality politics contest with the current third party.

But the negative reaction to Mulcair's gun control musings from some of his most valuable MPs -- including parliamentary heavy hitters Charlie Angus and Nathan Cullen -- underscores the hazards of the policy approach.

Gun control has always been a divisive issue for the NDP, whose traditional base includes a number of northern, rural ridings, such as Angus' Timmins-James Bay in Northern Ontario and Cullen's Skeena-Bulkley Valley in the British Columbia interior.

Still, Mulcair may find a way to placate his rural MPs' concerns, without backtracking from his comments on guns.

The NDP leader could figure out how to square the circle. Based on what Cullen and Angus say he told them, Mulcair plans to propose new gun measures that do not reproduce the flaws of the defunct long gun registry, but that still serve the purpose of differentiating the NDP from the policy-passive Liberals.

More important, in doing so, Mulcair would still send a clear message on the gun issue to Quebeckers, who have never stopped chafing from Prime Minister Harper's high-handed destruction of the long gun registry.

Claim to alternative government status if and when Justin falters

When commentators such as Kheiriddin accuse Mulcair of pandering to Quebec, they only have it half right. Another way of looking at Mulcair's gun control musings is to say he is sensitive to the concerns of his voters.

In fact, shoring up the NDP's base in francophone Quebec may not be as much a desperate as a smart strategy. It could help reinforce the NDP's claim to alternative government status, especially if Trudeau falters, as some recent polls seem to indicate.

Despite the Conservatives' modest recent uptick in popularity, there are still a whole lot of Canadians who are bound and determined to get rid of Prime Minister Harper the next time they vote. A good many of those voters have been saying, for months, that the Trudeau Liberals appear to have the "best chance" of pushing the Conservatives out of power.

Now that assumption is not so clear. And while many commentators portray the softening Trudeau numbers as good news for Harper, a weaker Trudeau could turn out to be even better news for Mulcair -- if the NDP leader plays his cards well.

For Mulcair, talking about gun control is a way to play the Quebec card, all the while sharpening policy differences with both other parties.

At the same time, and while we're dealing with policy, the NDP leader has been active in the newspaper op-ed field. He put out two of those in recent days: one on pipelines and the other on policies for the disabled.

Mulcair does not use these pieces to truck in bumper sticker slogans. Rather, these "think pieces" are opportunities to reason with voters. They address voters as intelligent adults by dealing in a candid way with the complex intricacies of policy.

On pipelines, while reiterating the NDP's opposition to Keystone XL, Mulcair says his party, in principle, supports the so-called energy east corridor. That pipeline proposal has elicited fierce opposition from environmentalists in Ontario and Quebec.

Mulcair is keenly aware of the opposition to energy east, which is why he qualifies his support with this caveat: "[Approval] criteria must include the impact of each individual project on our emissions and climate change commitments, on Canadian jobs and on national and regional energy security; public consultations must be credible and democratic, not shallow, limited or paper-only; and projects must honour our legal obligations to First Nations."

The message here is that we can have our sustainable development and our pipelines too.  The tactical purpose is to appeal to economy and jobs focused 'middle class' voters, while not alienating environmental activists.

In his piece on disability, Mulcair delivers a chapter and verse critique of the Harper government's record, a record that includes "delays and backlogs at the Social Security Tribunals... the elimination of home delivery by Canada Post... [and] the failure to take decisive action on the ongoing affordable housing crisis..."

The message here -- beyond the specifics of the disability issue -- is that Mulcair and his team are paying close attention to what Harper is doing and, equally important, what he is failing to do. A corollary message is that if the New Democrats were to assume responsibility for government they would be prepared; they would know where the bodies were buried.

A strong team can establish a party as a credible alternative

Apart from sharpening the policy focus, another way for Mulcair to establish that his party is a viable and credible alternative government would be to emphasize his team.

The official opposition has a significant number of strong and effective parliamentary performers, whom we should expect to see front and centre, as we get closer to an election. These include Megan Leslie, Françoise Boivin, Jack Harris, Robert Aubin, Hélène Laverdière, the aforementioned Cullen and Angus, and Peter Julian.

Jean Chrétien's Liberals used the "team" approach to great effect in the 1993 campaign. Their television ads portrayed the leader flanked by key team members, waving the party program and saying: "We have the team, we have the book... etc..."

In 1993 -- hard to believe now -- Liberal operatives feared that too many Canadians viewed Chrétien as yesterday's man. And so the party's back room folks decided they needed to bolster their leader with a strong team and a fully fleshed-out program. Their purpose was to reassure Canadians that a seemingly tired and none-too-eloquent Chrétien was, in fact, ready to govern.

Mulcair does not share that "past-his-best-before-date" perception problem with the Chrétien of 1993. But the Official Opposition leader does have to overcome the resistance of a great many Canadians to considering the NDP as a governing party.

Despite the 2011 election results, many voters still see the Liberals as the only credible alternative party of government, at the federal level. That is why having a highly visible, ready-to-govern team should be a key part of the NDP leader's strategy.

'Angry Tom' or 'Tom the fighter'...?

Finally, there is the question of Mulcair's image.

The sharp, confrontational, too-intelligent-by-half, bearded parliamentary scrapper may appeal to some, perhaps even to a great many. However, to a good many others it is an image that looks uncomfortably like the caricature of Mulcair as "angry Tom."

Still, there could be an upside to the image issue for Mulcair.

While the NDP leader will never be able to compete with his Liberal colleague in the who-is-cutest-and-cuddliest sweepstakes, he could, perhaps turn that "angry" image to his advantage.

The trick would be to transform an the impression of anger into one of strength and determination.

Instead of "angry Tom," NDPers will want voters to see their leader as "capable Tom," "smart Tom" and, perhaps most of all: "Tom the fighter."

And so Kheiriddin is right to note that opinion polls all continue to show the NDP in third place and that such polling results are motivating a strategy that emphasizes the NDP's policy proposals while it addresses the interests of the party's base in francophone Quebec.

The National Post columnist may be wrong, however, to characterize such an strategy as a sign of desperation.

It is not at all clear that voters who want to replace Harper have as yet made a final determination on how to best achieve their goal.

And so, in fact, what New Democrats and their leader have been doing of late may be not so much a desperate exercise to save the furniture as the launch of a systematic effort to position themselves as the logical alternative to the Harper government.

Photo: flickr/Matt Jiggins

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