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The curious case of Tom Mulcair: C-51 and the cost of a principled stance

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Any NDP stalwart will gladly tell you that one of Tommy Douglas' defining moments in his distinguished career was his opposition to the War Measures Act. In 1970, Douglas was nearing retirement as the party leader and certainly didn't seem poised to cause any stir that would add further accomplishment to his already famous career.

However, after the tumultuous October in Quebec, the Trudeau government invoked the War Measures Act to combat the actions of the FLQ. Rising in the House of Commons, Douglas and a handful of MPs from his party were the lone opposition to the action.

Later lauded in party circles, the opposition to the War Measures Act has become a part of Canadian history. However, what is often left out of the story is the extreme popularity of Trudeau's actions at the time. Though invoking the act severely strangled the rights of Canadians coast to coast, it was supported by 85 per cent of Canadians in 1970.

In fact, Douglas could not even whip his entire party to support his opposition, with 18 members supporting him and four members supporting the government. Overnight the New Democrats support fell to seven per cent in the polls. Had an election been called during this period it would most certainly have meant an end for a number of NDP MPs.

This brings us to today's opposition led by Tom Mulcair. With such a prestigious story -- PC opposition leader Robert Stanfield some years later would concede that Douglas' principled stance was the correct one that he admired -- what leader would not want to emulate such a historic moment? The problem here is that Mulcair is facing a guaranteed election year, trailing third in the poll numbers, and facing an ever popular Liberal leader. Though it may have seemed to be political suicide to try and make a principled unpopular stand in an election year, it's exactly what Mulcair did -- and it may be paying off.

At the time the Conservatives introduced the new security legislation, Bill C-51, it had 82 per cent support nationwide. With such high support numbers it's not hard to see why the Liberals may have been swayed into supporting such a sure thing.

Yet Mulcair and his party still took the principled -- yet deeply unpopular stance. Though some may have concluded this was to be Mulcair's death kneel, something quite the opposite appears to be occurring. Public opinion is quickly turning on C-51, evidenced by demonstrations across the country and new polls indicating that support for the bill has dropped to just 38 per cent approval.

Even more interesting for Mulcair are recent polls which indicate his party is climbing in popularity.

Though it's hard to say if this trend will continue, they are within sight of the Liberals and the Tories -- and certainly in a better position now than they were going into the 2011 election.

Of course, for Mulcair there are mounting concerns over the four way race developing in Quebec. His party appears to be making gains in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. In addition to this, Tom Mulcair is personally polling well -- though often times NDP leaders seem likeable, but are not perceived as the best fit for the top office.

Whether or not this rise in support is directly related to Bill C-51 cannot be said for sure. What can be said is that Mulcair took a stance that was deeply unpopular at the time and has not paid for it like polls would have suggested.

In fact, as support for C-51 continues to drop, support for the NDP continues to rise. Additionally, Trudeau's Liberals are now starting to see a drop in the polls as well. It seems as though the political landscape has begun to move since the introduction of C-51 that has benefited Mulcair.

Though the polling data could potentially be uncorrelated, his move seems to be paying off. Opposing something that was once supported by 82 per cent of Canadians is no easy task. However, being on the right side of that debate should that support disappear is exactly what the official opposition needs heading into an election. Perhaps party stalwarts will have a new principled opposition story to retell.


Ryan Donnelly has an undergraduate degree in History from Brock University and a graduate degree in Canadian Public Policy and International Relations from McMaster University. Since 2011 he has worked on a number of campaigns federally, provincially and municipally.

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