Ten years ago, he was a receptionist at New Democratic headquarters. He was in his early 20s, having only recently arrived in Canada from Hamburg, Germany.
Now, Raoul Gebert, 33, is Tom Mulcair’s chief of staff, one of the most powerful backroom players in Ottawa. He’s a quiet, low-key, academically minded social democrat with a Ger manic sense of order. Like most of the key players in the leader’s office, he is Quebec-based. As such, he is reflective of the new-styled NDP, which, to a larger extent than under Jack Layton, now sees Canada through a Quebec lens.
It is a lens that is not entirely dissimilar to that of the old Quebec-based Trudeau Liberals. Pierre Trudeau was an outsider when he came to Ottawa, as was Mr. Mulcair, a former Liberal himself. The leftism had European influences then. With Mr. Mulcair’s links to France – he maintains French citizenship – and Mr. Gebert’s Hamburgian heritage, there are traces now.
Mr. Gebert’s grandparents were conservative and working class, “fairly nationalistic but not members of the Nazi family,” he says. His mother is a supporter of the German Greens. His late father, Rudiger, founded a small political party, a party of the unemployed, in Germany. The son was influenced by that, but even more so by a few weeks he spent in Bolivia with an uncle as a young lad of 15. There he saw inequality in stark form, extreme differences “that really shook me up.”
He became a student activist in Hamburg, came to Montreal in 1999 because he wanted to study in English and learn French. In Montreal, he heard of this little labour-oriented, greenish party, the NDP, which was a non-player in Quebec; he signed on as an organizer. In the 2000 election campaign, he was one of 40 people who showed up when Alexa McDonough came to Montreal for what he recalls was the party’s lone campaign stop in the province. The outlook was that grim. But crazy things happen in politics. Look where they are today.
In Montreal, the studious and (as colleagues see him) ultra-smart Gebert wrote a master’s thesis on how labour was able to influence the European policy agenda. In Canada, environmental organizations and labour unions have frequently clashed. It doesn’t have to be that way, he maintains – the NDP is out to bridge the gap.
Last fall, he was president of the federal NDP’s Quebec wing when Mr. Mulcair, whose bid for the party leadership was off to a languid start, asked him to become campaign manager. The campaign rolled smoothly thereafter. The Gebert strategy was to keep him cool and have him look more prime ministerial than the others. It succeeded.
The strategy now is similar. Whereas Jack Layton ran a third party, Mr. Gebert says, “Tom’s challenge is to build a governing option” and exercise “a more cautious approach.” That was hardly on display when the leader, with spirited tongue, triggered the Dutch disease controversy. But the stance against rampant resource development is a cardinal precept of these New Democrats and a fight they wish to wage relentlessly. They don’t mind the brouhaha. They want it.
They want to be seen – can they not find a less cloudy and tedious phrase than “environmentally sustainable”? – as what might be called economic environmentalists, as approaching the green issue, Mr. Gebert explains, on economic principles. It’s not ideology-based politics, says another leading NDPer. “It’s science-based.”
The party did not respond to Preston Manning’s pointed criticism that the NDP leader was a hypocrite for not applying his polluter-pay principles to his home province’s hydro sector while attacking Alberta’s oil sands on that basis.
“It’s a bit of a stretch” Mr. Gebert says of the critique while acknowledging some legitimate concerns with Hydro-Québec. “Hydroelectricity is a source of energy that is much more sustainable than any other options we have available now.”
Through the NDP’s Quebec lens, the other lens is little cause for concern. “People don’t know who Preston Manning is in Quebec,” says the Mulcair fixer. “I don’t think people in Quebec care what Preston Manning thinks about it.”