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Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair responds to the Conservative government's budget in the foyer of the House of Commons on March 29, 2012. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail.)
Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair responds to the Conservative government's budget in the foyer of the House of Commons on March 29, 2012. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail.)

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Maybe a new world really is possible under Mulcair Add to ...

It’s been a rough month for those of us on the pessimistic left.

Faithful readers will know that I’ve spent my adult life trying to get the NDP to be realistic about its modest status in Canadian life. Until last May I repeatedly pointed out that with a single exception, the party always got less than 20 per cent of the national vote, would not in the foreseeable future form a government, and had to learn to live with moral victories as the conscience of the nation.

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This was not a status to be dismissed or minimized. The CCF/NDP played a central role, as opposition, in forcing the governing parties to introduce the welfare state, one of the great contributions to the well-being of Canadians, and now in serious jeopardy. As well, research showed that while most Canadians would not vote NDP, a majority were reassured to have the party around to keep the major players honest.

Then came May 2011, 30 per cent of the vote and Official Opposition. But how could it be sustained. Surely this was a fluke resting on the shoulders of one man, and he, tragically, was gone.

But then came March 2012. Naturally the media was happy to peddle Liberal spin that their candidate in the by-election to replace Jack Layton was coming on strong. It had seemed that New Democratic contender Craig Scott – law professor, international human rights activist, a real prize for the NDP and for parliament – was a shoo-in. Suddenly it appeared there was a real chance for an upset. Some upset. Mr. Scott won walking away, doubling the Liberal vote; the Conservative were missing in action. As it happened, the NDP leadership convention was only four days away.

But first new polling numbers emerged. For months we had heard that the party in the House of Commons had disappeared, its interim leader submerged by the ubiquitous Bob Rae. Yet almost a year after their majority government victory, the Harperites had lost a quarter of their support and were now at 30 per cent, the Liberals had stayed put at a derisory 20 per cent, and the NDP was still at 30 per cent. The party was tied with the badly slumping Conservatives for first place!

Even more remarkably, and all but unprecedented, 49 per cent of all Canadians now believe the NDP can be trusted with government. In fact, that can be said more positively: Half of Canadians believe an NDP government would be good for Canada! Another 20 per cent are unsure, making them potential supporters. It seems the very fact of being Official Opposition means a party is taken more seriously as an alternative government. Now you can’t exactly say with a straight face the NDP is rushing headlong towards government with up to 70 per cent of the vote. But still, whoever anticipated such a breakthrough?

The convention held its own traps and snares. Would the party select the obvious best candidate – the one who would consolidate Quebec, leave Bob Rae with a dead parrot for a party, and make the Conservatives supremely anxious? Here again the media set us up for the inevitable bad news. With a cock-and-bull story that Thomas Mulcair wanted to sell out the great dream of social democracy, he kept being painted as some kind of Manchurian candidate smuggled in by the 1 per cent. At the same time, given the almost indecent respect and civility the leadership candidates had showed each other throughout, the media naturally gave tons of ink to the rare outbursts against the front-runner.

This had the makings of a real upset. The party would never sell out its ideals for something as tainted as actual power. Yet the innuendo failed entirely. The Thomas Mulcair who party members kept seeing and hearing had nothing in common with the caricature peddled by a small number of opponents.

As for the bitterly divided convention that would restore the party as the beautiful loser of Confederation, it never existed. Mr. Mulcair proved to have substantial support in the camps of every one of the candidates who dropped out, his lead increasing with each ballot until the inevitable conclusion. No one was coming up the middle. The winner was the real choice of a good majority of the party.

Of course there was anxiety right to the final moment that the much-hyped internal divisions would be on full public display at the worst possible moment. No such luck. Once the winner was proclaimed, there were Mr. Mulcair, Brian Topp, Ed Broadbent, deputy leader Libby Davies and all the other candidates hugging and kissing and generally carrying on as if they were stubbornly determined to work together for their common dreams and ideals.

The convention floor itself was a demographic revelation. Everywhere you looked there were kids, youth, you know – the young people who are so disaffected they don’t bother voting and have repudiated party politics. Remember the Quebec child-MPs elected on Jack Layton’s coattails, the lampposts who went to Parliament, the ones the media had such a blast mocking and humiliating for weeks after the election. Right. In fact many of them had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the various candidates and they blew the hall away with their bilingualism, confidence, eloquence, joie de vivre and political smarts. The cynical assumption that they were all destined to be one-term historical footnotes is in real danger of being badly disproved.

And to top it off, post-convention polling continues this groundbreaking trend. As one pollster summed it up this week, “It’s clear that the election of Tom Mulcair as NDP leader has considerably improved the party’s prospects.”

But New Democrats know that nothing could more fatal than complacency of any kind. There are hurdles and obstacles ahead, some of them not minor. Just think of the Conservative attacks on the new leader that have already begun. Everyone knows that dishonest adolescent bullying assaults on their rivals have worked for them before.

Look at what they’re trying to do to poor old Bob Rae. There was the honourable Jason Kenney asserting with his trademark sincerity that Bob Rae “led” Ontario into recession as premier of Ontario 22 years ago; in genteel parliamentary language this would be known as a shameless inversion of the truth. Clearly Stephen Harper’s enforcers believe their coming onslaught can undermine the new NDP leader in the same classy way they demolished Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Who knows? Maybe they’re right. But the tides of March suggest this new NDP guy won’t be quite the pushover those Liberals were.

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