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In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s next task: Win over the country Add to ...

Indeed, to most observers, his performance was embarrassing beside that of Mr. Mulcair, even if the NDP’s “roll up the red carpet” campaign to abolish the Senate seemed quixotic at first. As the third party, the Liberals receive less time in Question Period, and Mr. Trudeau’s determination not to be dragged into the muck – negative campaigning, relentless partisanship and TV attack ads – left him little room to manoeuvre.

Yet he more than Mr. Mulcair seems to have profited from the Tories’ discomfiture. A recent Ipsos Reid poll placed the Liberals at 35 per cent support, the Conservatives at 29 per cent and the NDP at 26.

In the eyes of many, this payoff was demonstrated in four federal by-elections held Nov. 25. The Liberals kept seats they already held in Montreal and Toronto, and came close to toppling the Conservatives in one of two ridings in Manitoba, where the NDP’s performance was dismal – perhaps because of Mr. Mulcair’s approach to the oil sands or unhappiness with the provincial NDP government. As for the near-upset in Brandon Souris, the Liberals cleverly recruited the son of an MP who represented the riding for 30 years as a Conservative.

In the East, the NDP’s results were better, as the party more than doubled its vote (from 15 to 36 per cent) in a Toronto riding vacated by Liberal high flier Bob Rae. Perhaps the best news came from Montreal, where support held firm in Bourassa, another Liberal stronghold, showing that the party remains formidable in a province it long considered a wasteland.

Quebec will decide which party comes out ahead when the Liberals and NDP drop the gloves for real next year, so Mr. Mulcair pulls no punches when discussing the so-called “natural governing party.”

“Canadians wind up so many times like Charlie Brown on his back after Lucy has pulled the football away – the Liberals flash left, and turn right. You can’t treat people that way and expect to get away with it over time.

“They’re going to crab-walk over to my voters and say, ‘Come on, you can trust us this time.’ And we’re going to say, ‘You can’t.’ ”

But Quebec hasn’t backed a winner since 1988. Elections are now decided in the big cities of English Canada, which means that, if he is to become prime minister, Mr. Mulcair must tackle the incumbent. On this front, the NDP is fighting fire with fire. It has tried to emulate the Conservatives’ organizing tactics and, leading up to the 2015 campaign, party insiders say, it will position its leader as a virtuous Stephen Harper – tough, competent, not necessarily likeable, but more focused on the needs of struggling middle-income families and from a party devoid of the sleaze that now clings to Conservatives.

They won’t admit it on the record, but senior Conservatives worry that the New Democrats could eat into their support among suburban immigrant voters in the 905 area code surrounding Toronto – where more than anywhere else, the NDP must grow.

Victor Fingerhut, a Washington-based political consultant who has worked with the NDP, believes it also has growth potential if it can persuade voters it is “the only party that stands up for working people.”

But that will be a tall order, in light of one issue that promises to place a serious obstacle in Mr. Mulcair’s path.

Rock and a hard place

Although united behind their leader, New Democrats are a house divided when it comes to the government’s much-discussed Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement.

Mr. Mulcair insists that he supports the principle of free trade with Europe. After all, the potential gains are tempting – a market of 500 million people in 25 developed nations. And Europe is an NDP kind of place, with stronger labour and environmental protections than Canada and a long tradition of electing social democrats.

Yet the New Democrats say they want to see the final text of CETA and hold public consultations before passing judgment. The Liberals quickly endorsed the pact in principle – Mr. Trudeau even stood in the House and congratulated Mr. Harper – but senior NDP officials admit privately that Mr. Mulcair is trying to buy time.

He knows the party must find a way to support CETA, or lose any credibility that it can be trusted to manage the economy. Nonetheless, many in the labour movement oppose the agreement strongly, as do social activists. They see it as a sellout that will let European companies sue Canadian governments that try to buy local, could cost fishers and farmers their livelihoods, and will increase health costs with greater patent protection against generic drugs.

Unifor president Jerry Dias says his union, the private sector’s biggest (created when the Canadian Auto Workers and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers merged last year), is particularly upset with provisions that would increase the duty-free exchange of vehicles.

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