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The election campaign is officially on, and, as NDP and Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair predicted more than a year ago, it is a three-way race.
Of course, back when Mulcair was saying that, the polls had Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the lead and the NDP in third place.
The poll-obsessed media tilted their coverage in response to those numbers.
More often than not, they treated the duly elected Official Opposition as the third party and the third party as the government in waiting.
Then came the Alberta election and the Conservatives' anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, for which the Liberals voted in favour while promising to fix it later, and public opinion seemed to shift.
When many polls showed that Mulcair might be the more popular choice to unseat Harper, the media started to pay attention.
Now, the pundits said almost with one voice, there must be "increased scrutiny" of the party that had been the Official Opposition for more than three years.
NDP leader Mulcair and his 95 colleagues had been busy doing their job all along, in plain sight. Since 2011, they had been persistently and diligently pushing back on the Harper government's often radical agenda.
That agenda included bloated budget omnibus bills that, among other outrages, dramatically reduced the federal government's role in environmental protection; an attack on Canadians' right to vote, which Harper's minister Pierre Poilievre oxymoronically called the Fair Elections Act; and another omnibus bill that shoved mandatory minimum sentences down the provinces' throats, while turning possession of small amounts of marijuana into the major crime of drug trafficking.
Official Opposition worked hard out of the limelight
Consistently, Official Opposition MPs, and, at times, their third party Liberal colleagues, pushed for realistic and reasonable changes to Conservative legislation which was too often more motivated by ideology -- and in some cases, such as that of the Fair Elections Act, sheer nastiness -- than evidence.
The NDP did it in the House, in little-watched debates and in Question Period, and in committees, which is where the heavy lifting of parliamentary work should happen.
But Harper and his Conservatives did not interpret their 2011 majority win, however narrow, as an opportunity to consult or engage in dialogue with the opposition.
Despite their efforts to fulfill their constitutional role and constructively propose improvements to flawed measures before Parliament, NDPers faced a brick wall in the Harper government.
You might nonetheless expect that the Official Opposition would have gotten at least some good marks for trying so hard.
That did not happen.
All of the opposition's brave, if ultimately futile efforts barely grazed the consciousness of the folks who decide what gets covered in the media.
Then came the Duffy affair, on which the prime minister had to face direct questions from the opposition. When NDP leader Tom Mulcair showed himself to be a skilled prosecutor, at once fierce and coldly logical, the media did, at least for a moment, take notice.
But the smart money still had it that Mulcair's well-aimed, rapier-like probes at the prime minister were only paving the way for the young and charming heir apparent, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
The third party leader may have sometimes sounded like a cross between a high school debater and Mrs. Malaprop, with a touch of the unctuous Polonius thrown in for good measure -- no matter. He had what much of the Ottawa establishment of lobbyists, pundits and other influence peddlers considered to be the magic touch -- that ephemeral attribute we call star quality.
Mulcair might soften up the ruling prime minister, they reasoned, but Trudeau would reap the reward.
Looking for flaws in the NDP
The establishment is now, belatedly, turning its spotlight on Mulcair and his party, and they are picking away, looking for what they do not like.
There is, for instance, what some describe as the NDP's historic ambivalence toward trade deals.
Or, there is the fact that Mulcair is supposedly ready to break up Canada on the "strength of one vote." That is the same Mulcair Quebec separatists excoriate for having worked for the Anglo rights organization Alliance Quebec, and the same Mulcair who lost a Quebec MP to the Bloc because that MP thought the NDP's policy on a separation referendum was too tough.
Some commentators have even gone ad hominem. They cluck about the preparedness of the current Official Opposition to assume the reins of federal power.
One of the recurring tropes of smart-set Ottawa cocktail chatter is that while Trudeau may be less qualified to be prime minister than Mulcair, he has the better team of advisers.
Some pundits have parroted the Liberal leader and claimed that, unlike Trudeau, Mulcair has no obvious Bay Street-approved candidate for finance minister standing in the wings.
That's what passes for scrutiny in today's Ottawa -- or is it, at heart, mostly humbug?
Let's just take the last point. It plays into Prime Minister Harper's narrative that, while the Liberal leader cannot be trusted with power, in the New Democrats' case, it is the entire party that cannot be trusted.
There is a widespread myth -- to which much of the mainstream Canadian media seems to subscribe -- that to be a government's point person on economic policy you must come from the financial industry.
In the United States, the treasury secretary, equivalent to the Canadian finance minister, very often does come from Wall Street.
Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson who served presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are classic cases. They both cut their teeth at the mega investment banking house Goldman Sachs.
The policies they espoused included exempting those toxic financial products called credit derivatives from regulation, and dropping the sane rule that enforced a separation of investment from retail banking. Those policies led, in part, to the crash of 2008. Worse, they exacerbated its disastrous effects.
The recurring mantra of those denizens of Wall Street was, like that of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss: "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."
As the financial crisis was unfolding in 2007, Paulson famously adopted a strategy of deny, deny, deny.
The American banking system is sound, Bush's chief economics guy said, a little more than a year before Lehman Brothers folded and the American government was forced to inject billions of taxpayers' dollars into the system to head off total collapse.
Joe Oliver, Harper's current finance minister, also comes from investment banking; but he is a rarity here. Most Canadian finance ministers have been, like Oliver's predecessor, Jim Flaherty, politicians like any other, without formal, notionally economic credentials.
The jury's still out on Oliver -- who has spent a lot of his time avoiding having to answer questions on the economy, whether from journalists or MPs -- but the record of Wall Street treasury secretaries south of the border is not stellar.
Yet Canadian pundits insist on harshly judging the capacity of an opposition party to govern because it lacks magical Bay Street credentials. That judgment says more about the pundits' servility to Big Money and ignorance of recent history than it does about the current Official Opposition party's readiness to govern.
Parties' performances since 2011 should matter
In any case, the battle is now fully joined.
Canadians will have to choose a new Parliament on election day. They may also be choosing a new government.
The campaign to come will matter. We will be watching and evaluating the performances of the leaders.
At the same time, as the campaign gets underway, it might be useful to cast one's mind back to what has happened in Parliament since 2011.
The Harper government has its record, and it would be tragic if it were allowed to run away from it.
Harper and his team backed out of the Kyoto Accord on climate change.
They drastically reduced corporate taxes with no positive effect on investment.
The Conservatives pushed back against regulations for the oil and gas sector, while presiding over a significant decline in manufacturing.
They demonized refugees and they attacked independent officers of Parliament -- and much more.
But the opposition parties also have their records.
They, too, have been in parliament all this time, even if the media were not always looking.
How the parties that aspire to replace the Conservatives played their roles in opposition are also factors voters should consider when they weigh their choices.
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