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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks at the Canadian Network of National Associations of Regulators conference in Ottawa, Nov.8, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks at the Canadian Network of National Associations of Regulators conference in Ottawa, Nov.8, 2012.

(Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bruce Anderson: NDP’s new ‘pro-trade’ stance is a major step towards the centre Add to ...

Other than news about leadership contests, it might have seemed an uneventful week in politics. But without huge fanfare, a major shift occurred, something that could have profound consequences.

The Thomas Mulcair-led NDP took another large step towards the centre of the Canadian political spectrum, when their international trade critic, Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies, declared that the NDP was “vigorously pro-trade.”

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Not content to simply make this rhetorical proclamation, the NDP are backing it up with specific agenda items. They are pushing for expedited negotiations with Japan, as well as trade agreements with Brazil and India. Mr. Davies thinks a trade deal with the EU would also be a good thing.

On the surface, Mr. Davies’ observations, which emerged in a story by The Canadian Press, seemed like an attack on the Conservatives, or at the very least a “call you and raise you” response to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s efforts to label the NDP as extremist on trade.

But in the near term anyway, this initiative may pose a larger risk for the Liberal Party.

For many Liberals, hopes of a comeback rest on two notions, neither of which is certain to work out. First: that Justin Trudeau will be their next leader, and will mature rather than meltdown under the weight of greater responsibility. Second: that there will remain a clear gap in the centre of the spectrum between the too-soft NDP and the too-hard Conservatives, and that voters will crave the Liberals even more as a consequence.

The NDP can’t do much about the Justin Trudeau risk in the near term, but they seem determined to work on the second factor.

As implausible as it may have seemed in the past, the NDP do have a path to victory in the next election. It runs through Ontario and is lined with people who will choose that party that best gives voice to their economic anxieties and champions ideas that speak to their interests.

For many of these voters, the NDP had been losing relevance for much of the last 30 years, because their economic policy ideas seemed anachronistic and unrealistic. Nationalizing banks, unwinding trade deals, attacking corporate profits all provided the NDP with a clear brand identity, but one with narrow appeal.

Today, things have changed. The Liberals no longer command a place at the centre of the stage. Mr. Mulcair has plenty of room to run as leader of his party, and he’s running for the centre.

He knows that between now and the end of the Liberal leadership, there is an important window, during which he must persuade centrist voters that the NDP has changed. That it has become more pragmatic and creative on economic policy – more willing to intervene than the Conservative Party, more imaginative and crisp than the Liberal Party.

Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. And Mr. Mulcair cannot be unaware of the risks. If his party loses ground in the polls, some inside his tent will wonder if shedding the party’s traditional orthodoxy is the reason.

But Mr. Mulcair’s goal is not simply to hold onto the enormous gains that happened on Jack Layton’s watch – he sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take his also-ran party into government. Letting the party’s past, or its’ opponents, define the NDP would guarantee failure. Change, while risky, offers potentially unprecedented rewards.

Conservative Trade Minister Ed Fast asserts that Canadians can’t trust this new NDP, that people know “a leopard can’t change its spots.” But of course voters know precisely the opposite: that politicians of all stripes who want their support often do change positions. And voters generally like it that way.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and Senior Adviser with NATIONAL Public Relations.

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