Tom Mulcair campaigned on the promise to balance the federal budget but, as New Democrats decide whether to endorse his continued leadership of their party, he says he believes in running deficits when they are required to meet other NDP commitments.
There is significant disappointment among rank-and-file party workers about the results of the October election, which saw the New Democrats drop from first place in the polls to a distant third behind both the Conservatives and the winning Liberals. Many blame Mr. Mulcair, saying the platform he offered strayed too far from the traditional socialist values upon which the NDP was founded.
As he fights to persuade delegates to an NDP convention in Edmonton early next month that he should be the one to lead the party into the next election, Mr. Mulcair told The Globe and Mail on Saturday that the promise of a balanced budget is good only if it does not impede a government's ability to help Canadians in need.
"What we put on the table in the last campaign was based on the known economic situation then," the NDP Leader said after meeting in an Ottawa Legion hall with a little more than a hundred party members.
"If the economic situation today required us to run a deficit to be able to do the types of things that we have promised to do to help people," he said, "that's what we would do."
In a postelection analysis, party president Rebecca Blaikie wrote that the pledge to balance the budget made the NDP seem "cautious" at a time when the Liberals and their leader, Justin Trudeau, were providing greater contrast between themselves and the Conservatives. Critics within the party say Mr. Muclair ceded the left-leaning vote to Mr. Trudeau.
Now the NDP Leader, who has been travelling the country to talk with small groups of New Democrats – he has had about 50 such meetings in recent months, by his own count – must persuade those who will decide his fate that he remains the best voice for their convictions.
Under Mr. Mulcair's watch, the preamble of the NDP's constitution was changed to remove a commitment to apply "democratic socialist principles to government." But Mr. Mulcair says he is "not a bit" squeamish about the word socialist.
"I am a democratic socialist. I am a social democrat," he said. "Essentially what I want to make sure is that the institutions in our society serve people. Sometimes it means public ownership."
A small number of New Democrats – mostly from the far left – have stepped forward in recent days to say it is time for Mr. Mulcair to step aside. And, while no one in his caucus has questioned whether he deserves to continue as leader, the support of some New Democratic politicians has been tepid.
Three former NDP MPs from Quebec published a letter in Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper last week saying the party has "forgotten its raison d'être and the values it has always incarnated," which was seen by some as a veiled call for Mr. Mulcair's removal.
On the other hand, prominent British Columbia MP Peter Julian said in a column in that province's The Tyee that he would be voting against holding a new leadership race. "We need to push back in Parliament on behalf of all Canadians against a government that has already thrown aside so many of its solemn commitments to those same Canadians," wrote Mr. Julian. "And we need Tom Mulcair leading that fight."
Mr. Mulcair came to the federal New Democrats after spending years as a Liberal member of the Quebec National Assembly, some of them as a cabinet minister. But, he said Saturday, that was because there is no NDP at the provincial level in Quebec.
"I joined the NDP in 1974. I voted NDP," he said. "In terms of the environment, in terms of social issues, I have worked on this all my life."
A poll of 1,500 Canadians conducted last week by Abacus Data suggested that the Liberal government has made a positive impression among respondents who voted for the NDP, 55 per cent of whom said they approved of the government's performance.
When Mr. Mulcair was asked whether he is concerned that delegates to his party's convention will be looking at the popularity of the Liberals and questioning whether he can compete, he said New Democrats will endorse him because they know he will be their champion against inequality.
"They know that I am that fighter," he said.
"They know that I can stand up for government. But they also know that I can champion our core values of solidarity, of wanting to remove inequality in our society, of creating a society that is more fair."