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New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 14, 2013. Mulcair’s plans to repeal the Clarity Act haven’t gained much traction with Canadians or his provincial NDP counterparts. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 14, 2013. Mulcair’s plans to repeal the Clarity Act haven’t gained much traction with Canadians or his provincial NDP counterparts. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Bruce Anderson: The NDP is getting distracted by constitutional fights it can’t win Add to ...

2012 was one of the very best years in the history of the New Democrats, and it would be hard for the party to improve upon it. In fact, there’s a greater risk of the NDP sliding back, for a few reasons.

At the top of the list, are some policy choices the party has made. They believe the country should re-open and settle the explosive debate about what it would take for Quebec to separate from Canada. A while back, when pitching to establish a beachhead in Quebec, the NDP took a position they knew would not sell well in the rest of the country, asserting that a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one vote should be enough to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

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The NDP says the Clarity Act fails to provide clarity, which is a fair point. But eventually, the bigger question will be whether voters are drawn to or repelled by the idea of opening this debate up once again.

Nationalist Quebeckers helped vault the NDP to their best result ever, and will appreciate the party’s fidelity to this controversial position. One might sensibly argue that Thomas Mulcair is obliged to look at them in the same way Stephen Harper regards social conservatives: a base to be protected at all costs.

Still, at best this position will protect votes where the party has little if any room to grow, while risking support in areas where growth is imperative for the NDP to have hopes of a victory.

The NDP has also reiterated that if elected they would push to abolish the Senate. “Easier said than done” would be an understatement.

Despite decades of cynicism about the Senate, still only about a third of voters support its abolition. The truth is, voters may not like the status quo much, but they don’t particularly enjoy debating it either. Recent polling reports have taken to lumping the third that want abolition with the similar sized group who want “reforms,” as evidence of some new and profound consensus. In truth, no such consensus exists around what to do with the Senate, and any effort to deal with it would require a great deal of political energy, likely for naught, and with the end result of a public feeling that time and focus has been squandered.

The prospect of a NDP campaigning to abolish the Senate and re-open the Quebec secession debate is a gift Liberals and Conservatives probably didn’t see coming, but will delight in.

Many Canadians had begun to see the NDP as a more energetic, less entitled, version of the Liberal Party. Champions of pragmatic, largely centrist economic ideas, infused with social conscience. A party determined to fish where the fish are.

Abolishing the Senate and re-opening the Clarity Act will do little to attract the broad swath of voters outside Quebec who prefer their politicians to focus on bread and butter issues. With the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that Justin Trudeau will be chosen Liberal leader and will attract a lot of fresh attention for his party, Mr. Mulcair will have his work cut out for him in the run-up to the next election. While managing his risks in Quebec, he will no doubt be looking to reassert his focus on economic opportunity and the key battlegrounds of Ontario and B.C.

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 a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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