Thomas Mulcair is urging his party to begin preparations for an election that is more than two years in the future – one that will follow on the so-called “orange wave” of 2011 and determine whether the success of the New Democrats was a random event or a long-term trend.
The NDP Leader survived a confidence vote of his members on Saturday, earning the approval of 92.3 per cent of the roughly 2,000 New Democrats who have gathered in downtown Montreal.
It was a resounding display of confidence in Mr. Mulcair who leads a party that remained high in the polls for months after he was elected to succeed Jack Layton a year ago but has recently seen support ebb away.
“In a few short weeks, the Conservatives will begin the third year of their disastrous majority mandate. That’s why it’s all the more important to begin preparations to replace them right away,” Mr. Mulcair told his faithful. “In the next campaign, Conservatives will face an NDP election machine unlike anything they’ve ever seen.”
This is a policy convention, not a test of leadership. But Mr. Mulcair is being scrutinized here, perhaps even more closely than the ideas that will form the basis of the NDP campaign platform.
On Friday night, delegates were shown a video about their leader that was based on interviews with his family. His sister talked about the big brother who was a father figure to her from a young age. His sons talked about the pride they have in their dad. It showed Mr. Mulcair with his wife, Catherine Pinhas, who also introduced his speech on Saturday afternoon.
There were no sweater vests. But the party is clearly trying to smooth the edges of Mr. Mulcair – a man who can come across as gruff and, at times, dismissive.
That side of Mr. Mulcair has not made an appearance in Montreal. But his speech was emphatic and forceful – and full of derision for his political opponents.
The Liberals seem set to announce on Sunday that Justin Trudeau will lead them into the next election. Even before that contest is decided, Mr. Trudeau’s star power has vaulted his party ahead in the polls and left the NDP trailing.
Mr. Mulcair did not acknowledge that reality in his speech. Instead, he chose to dismiss the Liberals as Conservative conspirators. And he pointed out that the New Democrats have wrongly been written off many times before.
“I remember the 2011 campaign, when the pundits and the pollsters said we were way behind. They had us in fourth place, even in Quebec,” said Mr. Mulcair. The NDP, of course, was vaulted into the offices of the Official Opposition.
But it remains to be seen whether Mr. Mulcair can duplicate that success which was largely driven by the personal charisma of Mr. Layton – and whether he can do that in a campaign where he is fighting a popular Liberal leader.
Mr. Mulcair is not Mr. Layton, the man who became known as “un bon Jack.”
He is instead trying to impress upon Canadians that he would be a competent prime minister. Before he took the stage on Saturday, delegates were armed with signs that said “leadership” and “experience.”
Mr. Mulcair said he plans to make Canada “a beacon of economic, environmental and social justice and to build lasting prosperity, not just for a few of us, but for each and every one of us.”
If there is one thing that this convention has demonstrated, it is the messiness of democracy.
The debate about policy resolutions has been repeatedly delayed by points of order and points of privilege. And some speakers, once they have made it to a microphone, have felt the need to expound at length, to the frustration of other delegates would prefer to move along.
As a result, only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of resolutions submitted to the party by riding associations and various factions of the NDP have actually been put to a vote.
There was also some displeasure expressed at the fact that so much time has been given over to guest speakers, many of whom said they had been invited by Mr. Mulcair personally.
But there was a common motivational theme in those speeches from people like Jeremy Bird, the national field director of Obama for America, Olympic synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frechette and Australian Labour cabinet minister Bill Shorten.
Mr. Bird said it is wrong that Canada's Conservative government, which did not take 50 per cent of the popular vote in 2011, is pushing its minority views on the majority. He said it made him wonder if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had migrated north to join Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet. As for mounting a winning campaign, said Mr. Bird, New Democrats are up for the challenges ahead.
Mr. Shorten congratulated the NDP on their progress. “You know change is coming – that change is inevitable,” he said.
It is now up to Mr. Mulcair to ensure that that change works for his party, and not against it.