Thomas Mulcair has 2 1/2 years to convince Canadians that his New Democrats are worthy of forming a government – a job that could be made more difficult this weekend if the Liberals do the expected and elect the charismatic Justin Trudeau to carry their banner.
But Mr. Mulcair is bullish on his chances. Canadians understand that the NDP has the required experience, he told The Globe and Mail on Thursday in a telephone interview from Denmark, where he was attending an international conference on progressive governance. And he has plans to appeal to young people, many of whom traditionally stay home on election day
Still, questions remain about whether the NDP can increase the share of the federal vote it took two years ago – or even hold the seats that were won by Mr. Mulcair's predecessor Jack Layton. That will require a platform that appeals to an even broader spectrum of Canadians. New Democrats meet in Montreal this weekend to debate the policy that could end up in that pitch to voters.
How important is the policy stemming from resolutions that will be approved this weekend when it comes to writing an election platform?
Mulcair: It's absolutely crucial for us because this is a pivotal moment. On May 2, Mr. Harper starts the third year of his majority mandate which, as far as we're concerned, has been a disaster in terms of the public interest. And we've got to start really concentrating everybody's minds on the fact that the next election is going to have a lot on the table. We're going to be dealing with a government that will have seen, for example, our balance of trade go from a surplus on $18-billion down to a record $68-billion deficit. We've seen a government gut environmental legislation, leaving nothing but environmental debt to future generations who are going to be stuck with the cleanup. So we've got another view about what we can be doing.
How do you keep the more traditional left-wing elements of your party content while trying to appeal to more centrist voters?
Mulcair: By clearly setting out what our priority is. The Conservatives, for example, right now, have been cutting blindly in government without ever setting out, in advance, what the priorities are. The priorities should be the protection of the public interest, the protection of the public.
These debates [about direction] will take place. But, under my leadership, the party has been able to assure Canadians that we're the only ones capable of replacing Stephen Harper. And that's with a very broad appeal. Most Canadians agree with the NDP's vision. It's now our obligation to make sure that they understand that we can be counted upon to provide good competent public administration.
The most contentious item up for debate is a rewrite of the preamble of the party constitution that tones down the socialist dogma which has been a central tenet for the NDP. Do you agree with the proposed preamble as it is written, and why?
Mulcair: I am going to listen to the members on this one. I think it is a way of showing Canadians that we understand what their priorities are. The biggest inequity in our society today is between generations and that, for us, is going to be a central theme of the next campaign. I do understand, as everyone does in the party, that our interest, and the Canadian public's interest, is to see that we can replace the Conservatives with a forward-looking, progressive NDP government in 2015 and that would be a step in the right direction.
I am sure you have seen all of the buzz around Justin Trudeau. There are polls that suggest that he would not only beat your New Democrats, he would beat the Conservatives. Are you at all concerned about his ascendance?
Mulcair: With regard to the Liberals, whoever wins this weekend is going to be their seventh leader in 10 years, so they've obviously got a lot to sort out on their own. The next election is not in 2 1/2 months, it's in 2 1/2 years. There's a lot of stability in what we're proposing, a lot of solid ideas. People see in us a team with deep bench strength and the ability to form government, a lot of experience. With regard to any individual, I will wait and take that one step at a time once the other parties have made their choices.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has said she believed Mr. Trudeau would be more amenable to co-operation between parties as a way of defeating the Conservatives than you would be. Have you shut the door on co-operation of any sort?
Mulcair: The NDP initiated and wrote not just a co-operation agreement but a full-blown coalition agreement in 2008, because we had made it our priority to replace Stephen Harper. We were even going to go so far as to make the Liberal leader the prime minister of Canada. The Liberals lifted up their nose on their own signature. So the rest is history. We were told in the last election that there was a red door and a blue door and Canadians showed them the door. We have tried. The NDP has shown good faith in the past. In the next election campaign we will be running 338 candidates. We will not concede any territory to Stephen Harper. And to run fewer than 338 candidates would simply give Stephen Harper a mathematical advantage. He would be allowed spend a whole budget and we would not.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Editor's note: In a previous version of this article a question to Mr. Mulcair about his party's dogma was incorrectly transcribed as using the word separatist when in fact, he was asked about a socialist dogma. This version has been corrected.