When Thomas Mulcair spoke recently to a Quebec-based magazine, he tried to walk a fine line in positioning his party as against – but not completely against – the Energy East pipeline that would run from Alberta through to New Brunswick.
The way that his interview with L'actualité has flared up into controversy over what exactly he said, however, has only served to underscore the growing difficulty for the NDP Leader in playing to both Quebec audiences and those in the rest of the country leading up to the Oct. 19 election.
Until this spring, the New Democrats didn't have to worry all that much about convincing nationalists, who helped them to a stunning 59 Quebec seats in 2011, that they were sufficiently standing up for their province. The Bloc Québécois, from which those voters defected, was so moribund that there was little risk of them going back to it. But since Gilles Duceppe's return to the Bloc's helm, there have been signs of how Mr. Mulcair is feeling the pressure.
Among those was his reiteration last month of the NDP's Sherbrooke Declaration, which would allow Quebec to separate with a "50 per cent plus one" referendum vote and endorses a further shift toward asymmetrical federalism. But positioning on the would-be pipeline seems to have been getting more attention in Quebec, and is a serious sleeper issue elsewhere.
As recently as the end of last year, Mr. Mulcair sounded downright enthusiastic about the "pro-business, common sense" Energy East, with the caveat that the project would first have to go through a rigorous environmental-review process. That has since shifted to saying his party is against the project because the current review process is too weak, but would be willing to consider it if and when there is a better regulatory regime in place.
That has still not been enough for the Bloc, which is unequivocally against Energy East and has made it a signature issue since Mr. Duceppe's return. Its argument, more or less, is that after staunchly opposing pipelines that would run through British Columbia, Mr. Mulcair has been unwilling to stand up for Quebec in the same way.
In recent conversations, Quebec New Democrats have lamented that there is no way for them to match the Bloc's rhetoric on the subject, because unlike the sovereigntists they can't appear indifferent to economic interests in the rest of the country. "It's quite easy for them to say we're against every pipeline; we can't say that," one senior member of Mr. Mulcair's party said, predicting that "we'll lose some people's votes" as a result.
No doubt, Mr. Mulcair was aware of such dynamics when he sat down with L'actualité's reporter. The interview became a matter of dispute on Thursday, when the English-language digital media outlet Ricochet excerpted and translated a passage of the article (which was not yet available online in its original form) in which he appeared to be more firmly against the project than previously.
As that report quickly got legs on social media, the NDP distributed a partial transcript, and later an audio file, which showed Mr. Mulcair still leaving the door slightly open – albeit with a hint at the need for carbon pricing piled atop the regulatory demands, and a shot at the environmental impact of the proposal as it currently stands.
Even if Mr. Mulcair was somewhat a victim of broken telephone, the way it played out was telling. As the Bloc seeks to prove he's selling out Quebec, the NDP's other opponents – especially Justin Trudeau's Liberals, who instantaneously pounced on Thursday's report – are increasingly on the lookout for evidence he's saying things in Quebec that he wouldn't want the rest of the country to hear.
As past federal leaders could attest, maintaining a cross-country coalition that includes a sizable contingent of soft Quebec nationalists has all kinds of potential to go awry. The test of whether Mr. Mulcair can pull it off is only just beginning.