A tale of two parties: Comparing Mulcair's NDP and Trudeau's Liberals

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Looking back at the Liberal and NDP events of this past weekend there is no question that the parties resemble each other a whole lot more than either resembles the Conservatives.

NDPers voted for a resolution supporting Idle No More. Justin Trudeau expressed support for Idle No More in his acceptance speech.

Tom Mulcair says we have to put a price on carbon to fight the looming disaster of climate change. In one of his few pronouncements approaching a specific policy commitment, Justin Trudeau said last week that we must put a price on carbon.

NDPers talk about social justice, combating inequality. Trudeau talks about the need for compassion. Those are not exactly the same, but can anyone recall Stephen Harper ever uttering the word compassion (unless it was for long-suffering gun-owners)?

But looking back at the weekend's events you are also struck by the big differences between the two parties.

To start with, the two leaders are very different, temperamentally.

Trudeau is an emotive "connecter," a nearly USA-style, touchy-feely politician.

Mulcair is a sharp, fast-talking, analytic, policy-focused politician. When he brings up his upbringing and personal history he does a bit of sociology about the meaning of coming from a big Catholic family in Laval, Quebec.

When he talks about his family, Trudeau gushes at Sophie and their kids, and enthuses about how what he is doing is "all for them." At times the new Liberal leader sounds less like a politician and more like an emotionally overwrought movie star accepting an Academy Award.

That intense personal and emotional style is not everyone's cup of tea, but the soothsayers and oracles of Canadian political commentary -- the pollsters -- tell us it seems to be working for a lot Canadians, at least for the moment.

At Sunday evening's Liberal award ceremony, the graying heads of the Party, from Jean Chrétien to Ralph Goodale, were all hoping that personality stuff will keep on working for them. Some openly used the word the dreaded "C" word, "charisma," in talking about their new leader.

Party apparatchiks were, in private at any rate, not quite so sanguine. Some of them wistfully wish the election were in two months, not in more than two years.

Mulcair spoke to that timing reality, as well. He reminded Canadians (and his friends in the media) that at the beginning of the last election campaign the NDP was headed for a third place finish, as usual. At least, that is where the Party was heading if you believed the polls.

Divisions still there in Liberal Party?

Both parties have their internal divisions, as is normal. At the NDP convention the most visible sign of division came in spats with the tiny but vocal Socialist Caucus.

However, Mulcair quite easily got the super majority he needed to change the Party constitution's preamble. NDPers voted by a large margin to replace the Regina Manifesto's language about nationalizing the means of production and distribution. The party is now officially social democratic, not socialist.

Despite his impressive victory, Trudeau seemed more preoccupied with his party's unity than was Mulcair. The line in Trudeau's acceptance speech that got the biggest applause was "no more hyphenated Liberals!"

Trudeau pointedly argued that the Liberals' recent electoral misfortunes were all due to intra-party warfare. One got the strong sense that Trudeau does not believe the Liberals' warring factions have entirely disarmed.

Quebec important for both parties

The new Liberal leader also showed himself to be much concerned with the need to tailor a message for his own province.

In his father's day, the Liberal Party used to boldly run entirely separate and distinct campaigns in Quebec and the rest of Canada. If the slogan for rest-of-Canada was "The Land is Strong," in Quebec it was "Parlez fort au Québec." That was all decades ago, when political parties could still get away with that sort of split-screen messaging. It is indicative of the fact that Liberals have always considered Quebec to be very much a "distinct society" -- if not in the constitutional sense.

For his part, when he directly addressed voters in that distinct society, Trudeau-fils echoed his father in calling on Quebeckers to see the possibilities of building a great, vast Canada, rather than walling themselves into a single province.

He did add, quite accurately, that Quebeckers currently feel a high sense of alienation from the Harper government. Of course, Quebeckers were already experiencing that alienation nearly two years ago -- and  quite massively voted NDP as a result.

Now polls apparently show Trudeau doing well in Quebec -- based, no doubt, on that "charisma factor."

But, at a rational level, the Liberals have not yet made a compelling argument as to how voting for them rather than the NDP would be a more effective way for Quebeckers to push back on the Harper agenda.

The fact that the NDP mid-term convention was in Montreal and was conducted, to a large degree, in French, should serve as a reminder to Quebeckers that the party they voted for last time is now well–anchored in their province.

If the election of so many Quebec NDPers nearly two years ago came as a big surprise, even to the Party itself, the NDP's 57 Quebec MPs in the House have not been performing as though they were a bunch of imposters, far from it!

Trudeau will have a fight on his hands for Quebec votes when the time comes, and, unlike the Liberal leader, Mulcair will be able to point to his party's solid record in Parliament "standing up for Quebec."

The Liberals also, oddly, continue to demagogically attack Mulcair for his supposed willingness to "make it easy for Quebec to separate."

These attacks are based on the NDP’s recognition that a majority vote for yes in a sovereignty referendum would, inevitably, necessitate some form of Quebec-Canada negotiations.

The Liberals somehow never mention that the NDP favours an approach that is, in many ways, tougher then the existing Clarity Act.

The NDP's proposal would, for instance, give the federal government the right to, essentially, impose a veto on any question the Quebec government might want to ask in a referendum. That was what provoked one Quebec NDP MP to bolt for the Bloc Québecois.

One suspects that Trudeau's chief advisor, Gerald Butts, and others go in for this sort of bogus attack because it works in English Canada.

Both the Liberals and Conservatives will be trying to exploit lingering and deep seated discomfort with Quebec and its historic aspirations by painting Mulcair as some kind of crypto-separatist.

Quebeckers know otherwise.

They know that Mulcair campaigned ferociously on the "No" side in both referenda and worked, for a while, for the Anglophone rights group, Alliance Quebec. Indeed, because of his history, many hard line separatists have very negative feelings toward Mulcair. Ironically that may be why the NDP does not play up its leader's solid federalist record. In 2011, NDP votes in Quebec came from people on all sides of the so-called "national question."

But the fact is that Mulcair has way more national unity battle scars than Trudeau-fils. We might expect to hear more about all that as we get closer to an election.

All about the 'middle class'

There is one message you could not fail to hear from both parties this past weekend.

They are both über-enthusiastically, 1000% for the sainted "middle class."

Trudeau, in fact, pledged that serving the interests and solving the problems of the middle class will be what he thinks about every day, from morning to night. He did not make any pledges about his dreaming time.

The NDP, too, is for the middle class. (The Party no longer uses its old euphemism for the working class, "ordinary Canadians," because Mulcair found that unfortunate locution to be patronizing, and laden with problematic connotations in French.)

For Mulcair, however, the middle class is not the only political sacred cow. He has a broader focus, which includes jobs and the economy, yes, but also the central notion of sustainable development.

In this context, Mulcair's interest in the details of policy and his experience working on the environment come into play.

The NDP Leader has a coherent policy vision, which includes, as a central feature, truly "responsible" resource development (not the Conservative version of the same).

Mulcair's vision incorporates, but extends beyond, vaguely "caring" about the middle class. The NDP Leader speaks, more broadly and fundamentally, about caring for the planet that the middle class -- and all the classes -- will bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Choosing between competing interests

And here we get to a fundamental distinction between the two parties.

Despite its efforts to "modernize" and focus on that elusive quality called "electability," the NDP still has some edge, still recognizes that governing will inevitably means choosing between competing and contradictory interests.

You can please some of the people, some of the time; but you can't please everyone, all of the time. Unless, that is, you do virtually nothing.

Trudeau, however, is, for now at least, very much about being all things to all people. He is friend to rich and poor, alike. He is for the environment and Aboriginal people -- and for the Keystone XL pipeline. He is for vigorous competition and (after a stutter on the issue) also for supply management.

Trudeau's vision does not require making any difficult choices.

The Liberal Party has always been about the pursuit of power, not ideals, and with Trudeau at its head the Party will, even more than in the past, avoid any stances that might upset powerful and entrenched interests.

In this regard, if you want to get a sense of how the NDP and Liberals still differ, despite their seeming ideological convergence, consider the following:

The most recent NDP convention will be remembered as the one which gave an overwhelming vote of confidence to the Leader and got rid of old-socialist rhetoric in the party's foundational document.

It won't likely be remembered for another milestone, but this was also the first major party Canadian political convention at which an active sex worker spoke from the floor.

That happened at the very outset of a debate on a resolution proposed by Deputy Leader Libby Davies' Vancouver East riding, calling for the de-criminalization of sex work.

A Montreal sex worker, who was also a delegate, spoke eloquently about the extreme dangers to which their illegal status subjects sex workers.

"We cannot legally work indoors," she said. "And when go outdoors the police harass us."

A party resolutely and almost exclusively focused on the economic concerns of the “middle class” might shy away from controversial and risky causes like that of marginalized sex workers.

But, despite the nervous apprehensions of many in the Party brass, Davies and some allies managed to get the sex worker resolution to the floor of the convention. And when the sex worker went to the microphone and spoke, even the doubters were moved by her candour and natural eloquence.

It is hard to imagine a similar display at Liberal convention.

Even if many Liberals might agree that sex workers are a vulnerable group -- who do not deserve to be victimized by the law while they are too often ignored when they are the victims of crime -- the Liberals would likely decide that discretion is the better part of valour on anything that might offend a good part of that crucial "middle class."

Of course, while NDPers may have a stronger sense of principle and more backbone, they are not electorally suicidal.

That is why this past weekend's convention never actually voted on the sex work issue.

Instead, the NDPers decided to send the whole question to the party's Federal Council, which must consult widely (including with sex workers) and report back by November of this year.

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