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Antonia Maioni

Antonia Maioni

Antonia Maioni

Why Quebeckers are ready to embrace Tom Mulcair Add to ...

Antonia Maioni is a professor of political science at McGill University

There’s a buzz in Quebec and it’s not just about PKP. While a Leger poll showed that the new Parti Québécois leader, Pierre Karl Péladeau, has arrived with significant support in the polls, another CROP survey showed that Thomas Mulcair and the NDP have become the strongest contenders among federal parties, with an even larger share of the vote than that of the PQ.

The CROP poll, published in La Presse, reveals two noteworthy trends. The NDP is now at 42 per cent of voter intentions in Quebec, while the Liberals are at 25, the Conservatives at 15 and the Bloc remains below its 2011 showing at 13 per cent. In effect, the NDP is now attracting the same level of support across Quebec that it obtained in the famous orange wave of the 2011 election.

And, even though it was le bon Jack who swept Quebeckers’ hearts and minds, they are now ready to overwhelmingly embrace his successor as the “best” potential prime minister: 37 per cent of respondents placed Mr. Mulcair at the top of their list, compared to only 16 per cent for Justin Trudeau and 14 per cent for Stephen Harper.

Wind in the sails from the NDP victory in Alberta? Predictable fallout from dissatisfaction with the Harper government? Perhaps, but the real backstory is about Tom Mulcair. For the NDP leader has shown that he has been able to build on the groundbreaking foray of the NDP in Quebec on his own terms, by moving beyond Jack Layton’s ghost to forge his own basis of support.

Despite his credentials, Mr. Mulcair was an unlikely heir to Jack Layton’s legacy. Known for his prickly personality, Mr. Mulcair had little of the bonhomie of his predecessor. He also had considerable political baggage, having been a minister in Jean Charest’s Liberal cabinet and, before that, head of legal affairs at Alliance Québec, the English-language rights group; not the typical feuille de route for attracting francophone votes across Quebec.

And yet, Mr. Mulcair has not only succeeded in maintaining Jack Layton’s entree into Québec (a feat that none of his rivals for the NDP leadership could have easily accomplished), he has done so while remaining true to his own persona as a professional politician and lawyer for the prosecution. He has been a visible presence in Quebec, travelling the province and increasing his visibility.

Across the regions, he has attracted considerable support among key community stakeholders (labour organizations, agricultural associations, and the like) for his grasp and clarity on specific policy issues. And, while Quebec voters are not as a rule “tuned in” to (much less turned on by) federal politics, Mr. Mulcair’s dogged pursuit of Stephen Harper over the Senate scandal had a positive echo, much as his position on Bill C-51, the environment, infrastructure, and the like. Although Quebeckers have shown that they do not necessarily base their vote on the party most likely to form a government, they see in Mr. Mulcair a man who can stand his ground against the Conservatives, a role that Justin Trudeau seems incapable of assuming.

Still, the ghost of Jack Layton may come back to haunt Mr. Mulcair. If he intends to take the NDP beyond a Quebec protest vote to form the bedrock of a national campaign for power, Mr. Mulcair needs to connect his policy prowess with Layton’s political magic. Although Quebeckers see Mr. Mulcair as someone who is ready for a fight, this will be his first campaign as party leader and he will need to temper his feistiness with a more authentic charm offensive. He then needs to move beyond the personal goodwill engendered by Jack Layton to show that the NDP’s team in Quebec is not just a “vanguard” but is ready for prime time as a government in waiting (something that still remains doubtful).

And, most important, Mr. Mulcair needs to walk that careful tightrope that allows for a campaign that remains attentive to the party’s specific promises in Quebec while remaining true to the NDP’s national aspirations. Jack Layton was able to do this because his party’s faithful across Canada were willing to give him the benefit of every doubt. In an increasingly charged political situation in which voters are looking for a credible alternative to the Conservative government, Mr. Mulcair will need to show that he can lead a national party to victory from, and beyond, Quebec.

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