The man selected by the federal New Democrats to fill the void left by Jack Layton says he will gradually build a “structured” opposition that is capable of taking the battle to the Conservative government in the lead up to the next federal election.
In his first day as Leader of the party and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Thomas Mulcair sent strong signals that he was not planning to clean the NDP house of all of those who were loyal to Mr. Layton. And he said he would take his time rearranging the portfolios of the members of his caucus – rewarding strengths rather than punishing those who did not support him through the long contest for the party’s top job.
Mr. Mulcair is a man known more as a political pugilist than a conciliator. But this is a time when repairing fissures created during the leadership race must be his top priority.
“It’s going to be a cascading transition but under the sign of continuity,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters after attending his first caucus meeting as party leader.
On Monday, he will change seats on the House of Commons with Nycole Turmel, the woman who served as interim leader since last August. In two weeks time, some critics’ roles will be shuffled. “We have to get all of those extraordinary men and women who ran as candidates in this campaign back into roles in the House,” he explained.
Then in the fall, the real battle begins, said Mr. Mulcair. His years in provincial politics in Quebec convinced him of the need to build a structured Official Opposition that focuses heavily research, he said. “We’re going to do that work and bring the tough fight in 2012 and 2013 to the Conservatives, and in the last year really prepare for the election” of 2015.
Mr. Mulcair’s first move to mend fences within the party was to name B.C. MP Libby Davies, who had supported second-place finisher Brian Topp, as deputy leader.
Mr. Mulcair and Ms. Davies were bitter rivals during the leadership race, and the new leader’s decision to keep her in the position sent a clear signal that he will not adopt a scorched-earth policy as he shuffles various positions in the party.
Then, on Sunday, he walked into the caucus meeting with Anne McGrath, who was chief of staff for Mr. Layton and Ms. Turmel, and announced that she will remain in that position through the transition.
“We’re together, united, prepared to face our only adversary, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives starting tomorrow,” he told his MPs.
But not all of those who were loyal to Mr. Layton will remain in the inner circle of the opposition led by Mr. Mulcair. Brad Lavigne, who helped Mr. Layton win the party leadership and who has been a central figure within the federal NDP for the past 10 years said Sunday that he had submitted his resignation as national director.
Top-of-mind for the NDP are the fresh Conservative attacks against Mr. Mulcair, and the fear that the governing party will be able to tarnish his reputation in the same way that it tarred former Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. The Conservative Party has already started trying to brand Mr. Mulcair as “hard-left,” vicious and overly aggressive.
“They are trying to portray him as a Marxist-Leninist monster,” said Montreal MP Alexandre Boulerice. “After a while, everything that is exaggerated becomes insignificant.”
Gatineau MP Françoise Boivin added that the NDP can be counted on to respond with its own positive message, while reminding Canadians about the true nature of the Conservative government.
“No organization should allow its leader to be attacked,” she said. “Still, we can’t change who we are and we can’t get down into the gutter like the Conservatives and start throwing mud around, that’s not our style.”
Toronto MP Olivia Chow, the widow of former leader Jack Layton, said that she has no concerns about Mr. Mulcair’s ability to unite his caucus, despite his reputation for having a short fuse.
“In the NDP, unity is in our DNA,” Ms. Chow said. “We have a leader who will move us forward, not right or left.”
Prominent NDP MPs said Mr. Mulcair will have the liberty to shuffle his shadow cabinet, adding they are confident that he will use the best talents at his disposal, regardless of their allegiances during the leadership race.
“Leadership races can create a bit of disappointment and sadness, but the amount of work ahead of us is so large that it will act as the glue that will keep us together,” Mr. Boulerice said.
The Treasury Board critic said Mr. Mulcair’s decision to keep Ms. Davies in her position, and his handshake with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent after his victory, are signs that he takes party unity at heart.
“He can shuffle the decks, he can give us the roles that he wants, and I will be perfectly at ease with those decisions,” Mr. Boulerice said.
Pat Martin, the Winnipeg MP who had remained resolutely neutral throughout the leadership race, said he was excited about what lies ahead for the party under Mr. Mulcair’s direction.
“We’ve moved from nearly a religion to a debating club to an official political party,” Mr. Martin told reporters as he entered the caucus meeting. “It’s refreshing for me. We’re in it to win it.”