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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on May 16, 2012. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on May 16, 2012. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)

Mulcair's oil-sands musing risks halting NDP momentum Add to ...

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s thoughts about whether Alberta’s oil sands are causing a “Dutch disease” for the Canadian economy have touched off a lively debate about his political strategy.

Some sense his approach is clever, if diabolical: that he wants to deliberately split the country, rallying Ontarians and Quebeckers to put the NDP over the top by blaming the West’s success for Central Canada’s misfortunes.

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I very much doubt this is Mr. Mulcair’s strategy. But if it were his strategy, it would fail badly.

The idea that most Ontarians would rather reverse the economic growth that is happening in the West is ludicrous. True, they might love to return to a day when their province was the most powerful economic engine in the country – but by winning a race to the top, not by failing less badly than others.

Voters in the largest province may not think that oil-sands activity makes all boats rise at the same rate, but they know better than to believe that a good day in the oil sands is a bad day on Bay Street or in Hamilton or Kitchener. There are people working in small, medium and larger companies that sell goods and services to oil-sands projects every day. Many union leaders know their members have benefited from oil-sands expansion.

The Dutch-disease argument might feel like a comforting explanation for the loss of manufacturing jobs in some areas, because it suggests victimization. But even if it were true, it's little more than a diagnosis with no credible cure. If Mr. Mulcair truly wanted to rally people against the economics of the oil sands, he would need to make a much stronger case than simply reminding them that we sold more manufactured goods when our dollar was cheaper.

Mr. Mulcair’s pitch right now seems half chalk and half cheese. He dislikes the environmental impacts but doesn’t want to outright oppose oil-sands development. So he hints at a “Goldilocks” option: tax the oil sands to slow things down, lessen the environmental impact, let the dollar weaken, and the economy everywhere else will do better.

Setting aside how divisive an idea like this could be (already is?), as an economic blueprint it could bring to a halt the NDP’s forward momentum. If a right-wing economic think tank offered this prescription, it would raise eyebrows and doubts. For an NDP leader, it would do more to damage credibility than it would build support.

If the policy/strategy attributed to Mr. Mulcair is truly what he has in mind, he might cheer a portion of his base. But he’d also create lots of cracks in his coalition, especially with union members, to say nothing of many in the West. An opening for the Liberals is evident. Vulnerability to attack by the Conservatives is unmistakable.

Most Canadians want the country to harness the economic value of the oil sands, and apply appropriate environmental care. Arguing that the oil sands is an environmental problem that can’t be overcome would be bad enough strategy for the NDP. Decrying the oil sands as what’s wrong with the economy would make mainstream voters scratch their heads and wander away.

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