Thomas Mulcair is focusing on economic development and job creation as the new leader of the Official Opposition, hoping to fight off Conservative efforts to brand the NDP as a high-tax, big-spending party.
The strategy includes attacking the Conservative government for favouring the expansion of the oil sands at the expense of high-paying manufacturing jobs, putting him in the middle of a public spat between Ontario and Alberta.
It is a long thought-out strategy for the new NDP Leader, who is putting his experience as a minister of the environment in Quebec and his party's finance critic to use in planning for the 2015 election.
Sticking closely to his written text as he asked his first questions in his new capacity, Mr. Mulcair took straight aim at the government’s failure to protect the 2,600 workers affected by the shutdown of Aveos Fleet Performance Inc. in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
Speaking to reporters afterward, he laid out his concerns for the state of the Canadian economy and accused the federal government of neglecting workers as it promotes the extraction of natural resources, mainly in Western Canada.
“That’s driven up the value of the Canadian dollar, made it more difficult to export our own goods. We’re killing our manufacturing sector,” he said. “The way the Conservatives are acting has had a devastating impact on good jobs with pensions.”
In the House, the Conservatives responded to the NDP attacks by stating the economy has created 610,000 new jobs since the recession. In a speech on Monday evening, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver accused the new leader of the NDP of wanting to “tax the oil sands to death,” stating that arguments about a trade-off between “Ontario manufacturing and western resources” is divisive.
“Few countries have a natural resource endowment equal to ours. We should consider it a blessing, not a burden and certainly not a source of shame,” Mr. Oliver said.
The third-place Liberals are also trying to play a role in the battle over the future of the economy, as interim Leader Bob Rae took a much more passionate approach to the Aveos shutdown than Mr. Mulcair. Mr. Rae spoke without notes and attacked the federal government for refusing to enforce the Air Canada Public Participation Act to protect workers.
“If the law is the law, the law is very clear. The law requires Air Canada to maintain its operations for maintenance and overhaul in three cities,” Mr. Rae said. “When is the government of Canada going to finally step up to the plate and enforce the law?”
On his first day on the job in the House, Mr. Mulcair clearly took sides in the recent battle that has seen Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty publicly quarrel over Canada’s “petro dollar” and its impact on manufacturers.
By defending the manufacturing sector, historically based in Central Canada, Mr. Mulcair is risking alienating some voters in Western Canada. But he insists that protecting the environment, by forcing natural-resources company to pick up a greater share of the overall extraction costs, is essential to protecting the interests of future generations.
Still, he vowed to address concerns in the West about his use of the word “tar sands,” which is viewed as having a more negative connotation than “oil sands.”
“Frankly, they’re bitumen sands, they’re neither oil nor tar,” he said. “I tend to use them interchangeably, [but I’ll use]more and more oil sands because that’s what becoming common parlance.”
Speaking about his first day in the House as NDP Leader, Mr. Mulcair became emotional, stating that it was hard to “take the seat of my friend Jack,” referring to former leader Jack Layton who died last summer.
Mr. Mulcair also addressed continuing upheaval in his party, as director of communications Drew Anderson told staff on Monday that he is leaving. In addition, the party’s former top Quebec adviser, Raymond Guardia, is on the way out after running the leadership campaign of second-place finisher Brian Topp, sources said.
On Sunday, Brad Lavigne announced his departure as the NDP’s national director. While he was officially neutral in the race given his position, Mr. Lavigne was seen as a supporter of Mr. Topp, having given $1,000 to his campaign.
Mr. Mulcair said that some of the departures were long planned or done for family reasons, and he rejected having asked Mr. Guardia to leave.
“A few new people will join my team, some people are leaving, but overall, it will be the same team and I’m glad to have continuity,” he said.
With a report from Shawn McCarthy