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Lawrence Martin (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

LAWRENCE MARTIN

Progressives battle, Harper smiles Add to ...

Now that was a speech. Thomas Mulcair’s words to his federal council Sunday were surely music to Stephen Harper’s ears. The Prime Minister should send the NDP Leader a bottle of gin.

The truculent Mr. Mulcair picked apart Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, portraying him as a silk-stockinged, Tartuffian lightweight. He didn’t actually cite Molière’s theatrical comedy about the pious charlatan, but he might as well have.

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“The problem is, Justin Trudeau will never know what middle-class means,” Mr. Mulcair intoned. “He just doesn’t understand the real challenges that families are facing. Never has. Never will.”

The bearded former Liberal took time to remind one and all that he grew up – cue the school-of-hard-knocks schtick – in a family of 10. They had to scrap to make do. Mr. Trudeau? Well, he was at 24 Sussex Dr., surrounded by maids and Downton Abbey footmen.

There was also a suggestion in the speech that the young Mr. Trudeau is in over his head – just like those Conservative attack ads say.

To be sure, the NDP Leader took a run at Mr. Harper as well, zeroing in on pensions, health care and the much-scorned Fair Elections Act, which he said will be a focal point of the next election campaign. With it, he said, the Conservatives are trying to “rig the next election in their favour.”

But the bulk of the campaign-style oration was aimed not at the governing party, but at boy blunder, as some Tories like to call Mr. Trudeau. It was the kind of talk that progressives who dream of defeating Mr. Harper dread. It signals a fevered fight between the two major opposition parties, one that drags both down while allowing Mr. Harper’s Conservatives some breathing room.

Mr. Mulcair has little choice but to target the Liberals because, as polls repeatedly reveal, Mr. Trudeau is a grave threat to the New Democrats’ prospects – particularly in Quebec, where the NDP won a stunning 59 seats in the last election. Mr. Harper need not worry about Quebec. He has just five seats to lose there and is capable of re-election simply by virtue of his strength in Ontario and the West.

Mr. Mulcair, once a rather slick lawyer, portrayed himself as a kitchen-table guy. That’s the place where you get to know Canadians, he said. But that feel for the population is also something you’ve had to experience yourself, “that you have lived or haven’t lived. And if you’ve got no connection to it other than a line in a speech that somebody else has written for you, well then of course it’s going to sound hollow.”

The heated rhetoric marked a new stage of aggression for Mr. Mulcair. Some might suggest that with an election likely still 18 months away, he’s starting to sound a little desperate. That is not a good idea, because he’s already seen by many as being too aggressive and power-hungry to begin with.

It was the Liberal Party that built Canada’s welfare state, but Mr. Mulcair was dismissive. “Liberals pay lip service to progressive values while they’re in opposition, only to turn their backs on them every time they’re in power,” he said, warning that Mr. Trudeau would do the same.

It’s standard practice in politics for leaders who come from silver-spooned backgrounds to be portrayed as out of touch with the needs of real people. Sometimes, this line of attack works. Sometimes, as in the cases of the Kennedys and Mr. Trudeau’s father, it doesn’t.

In this context, the leader most likely to be helped is Mr. Harper. We can bet that Mr. Trudeau will respond with scorn to the kitchen-table broadsides. As he and Mr. Mulcair beat each other up for the progressive vote, the Prime Minister will enjoy the show.

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