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Lawrence Martin

Feeling the force of the Mulcair effect Add to ...

In the New Democratic Party and beyond, people are starting to take note of the Mulcair effect.

The NDP has always looked for someone who could build the party in Quebec. It's never worked, and it might not work this time. But at no juncture has the party had as powerful a figure in the province as the volcanic Thomas Mulcair, the lava-tongued lawyer who served in Quebec's National Assembly for 13 years as a Liberal.

Few made stronger impressions than him on Parliament Hill in 2010. Mr. Mulcair has an ego the size of Mount Kilimanjaro, with talent and temper of almost the same magnitude. He is considered a good bet to become leader of his party. For Liberals looking on, he's also, given his grit, an argument for a coalition, which he favours.

In Quebec, where the NDP's media presence has grown exponentially since Mr. Mulcair donned the party's garments in 2007, the New Democrats placed second in several recent polls, behind the Bloc Québécois. Gains are particularly noticeable among francophone voters. Although Mr. Mulcair is an anglophone, he speaks predominantly French and is even more forceful in his second tongue than his first.

The party has expectations of winning the riding of Gatineau, where their candidate, Françoise Boivin, a former Liberal MP, lost narrowly last time out. The Dippers have a good shot in Hull and in a few Liberal-held ridings in Montreal, where they've lined up some high-profile candidates they'll be announcing when the right moment arises.

"We're connecting in Quebec on the level of values," Mr. Mulcair says. "A lot of people here realize that the Bloc is a great team when it comes to playing defence. But if they want to really do something about the issues like the environment, they need a group that can work across Canada." He's emphasizing fiscal accountability and selling the NDP as a party that will give substance to the 2006 parliamentary motion that granted nation status to the Québécois.

But it's the force of Mr. Mulcair's personality that's paying off. If you ask anyone in the House of Commons whom they'd least like to debate, Mr. Mulcair would finish near the top of the list. His aggressive, surgical technique was on display last week in a committee hearing concerning Kelly Block, a Conservative MP whose staffer, Russell Ullyatt, leaked a confidential pre-budget report. Earlier, when a magazine accused Quebec of being the most corrupt province in the country, Mr. Mulcair rose mightily to Quebec's defence.

To succeed Jack Layton, he'll have to start reaching out to party members. His short fuse, or what he prefers to call "a good Irish temper," has sometimes ruffled feathers in his caucus. "I am a determined person with a lot of experience," he says, "and when I see something that I know is going to hurt us for no reason, I'll sometimes dig my heels in."

The 56-year-old doesn't deny an ambition to succeed Mr. Layton, but he's being very careful not to tout it. He has a more immediate task - to win his own Montreal riding, where he'll be up against a former Liberal heavyweight, Martin Cauchon, who served as justice minister under Jean Chrétien.

Being a former Liberal, Mr. Mulcair has no doubt the two parties can work together. "On the centre-left, we have to be just as smart as conservatives were on the centre-right when they coalesced. We've got to learn from that, otherwise we'll end up with Harper governing with 37 per cent of the vote again."

The NDP, he says, is sending a clear signal. "People can trust us to work with anyone else who wants to give voice to the 65 per cent of Canadians who are asking for a more progressive form of government than what we've been getting. This will require everyone to put a little water in their wine."

Water in the wine. From a former Liberal, that's good advice.

 

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