Years ago, a friend worked on the Steve Fonyo run to raise money for cancer research. Fonyo, following in the footsteps of Terry Fox, was largely ignored until he entered western Canada. But even then his was a troubled path. “You can’t compete with a dead hero,” was my friend’s assessment.
Tom Mulcair, as leader of the NDP, faces a similar challenge. Jack Layton captured the imagination of Canadians in the 2011 election, nowhere more powerfully than in Quebec, where the Orange Wave swept through the province and captured the vast majority of the seats. Layton’s tragic death to cancer only a few months later only added to his lustre.
Mulcair is less appealing than La Bonne Jacque, though his credentials for leadership are at least as good. A long-serving and well respected Minister of the Environment (among other posts) he has more practical experience of government than the former city councillor from Toronto and more than Justin Trudeau. Indeed, he has far more experience than Stephen Harper had when he became Prime Minister.
No-one questions Mulcair’s competence and attacks on his character have largely fallen flat. The fact he once considered working for (not running for, as some have said) the conservative government is raised. The Conservatives claim he didn’t sign over money; his own story that he found their lack of commitment on climate files is more compelling. Others point to his personal finances but it really comes down to rumour and innuendo. Most Canadians know the trouble of juggling money in an urban environment.
Some accuse him of being authoritarian and have referred to him as Harper with a beard. But given the unruly lot of neophyte politicians who went to Ottawa with him, it is no surprise. He had to be tough to whip them into shape and it seemed to work. The NDP caucus as a whole has performed remarkably well. Still, his handling of the sexual harassment incidents seemed strangely sneaky and heavy-handed. And their loose interpretation of Commons spending rules will only be sorted out – not by the partisan Board of Internal Economy – but by the courts.
Ultimately, Mulcair’s leadership will be judged by the results of this year’s election. Many who have supported the NDP in the past found his insistence on balanced budgets and his willingness to delay progressive changes to society for years unsettling – yet most stuck with him.
It seems unfortunate that, having lead in the polls for months, he has been undone by the Conservative -Bloc appeal to the worst elements of Canadian society. The niqab and citizenship are largely irrelevant but have been effective at whipping up fear– nowhere more so than in Quebec. Mulcair shouldn’t be too surprised. There have always been two Quebecs as the Bloc always knew. One is progressive and clusters in the sophisticated urban areas; the other is tribal and dominates the country side.
While Mulcair, a principled progressive man, tries to maintain his stance, he is being assailed on all sides by those who are more interested in power and don’t care how divisive their politics are.
With two weeks to go and his party sinking fast, Mulcair will need every trick his experience has taught him – and a fair bit of luck – to come back now.
But that’s ten minutes.