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john ibbitson

Opposition parties preparing for a transition to power must walk an exceedingly fine line.

Word that a team of senior NDP officials is hard at work preparing for the transition to government may boost the party's credibility in the eyes of voters.

But those same voters will punish a leader who starts measuring the drapes in the prime minister's office before the people have had their say.

Which is why Thomas Mulcair probably reverted to Angry Tom when the CBC reported Wednesday that members of the NDP transition team have been talking with people such as Alex Himelfarb, the former clerk of the Privy Council, former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, David Zussman, a political scientist and former senior public servant and others who could offer advice to an incoming NDP administration.

On the one hand, such consultations are right and proper. Mr. Mulcair is the Leader of the Opposition and the New Democrats are ahead in the polls. If he becomes prime minister, some of Mr. Mulcair's most important decisions will be his first decisions: who should go in cabinet, what should go in the mandate letter given to each minister, how to structure the cabinet committees, who should do what in the Prime Minister's Office, how to translate the electoral platform into government policy.

The bureaucracy is already at work on preparing comprehensive briefings for whoever forms the next government, but the transition team smoothes the political path for an incoming prime minister.

A carefully considered transition is especially important for the NDP, which has never governed federally. Mr. Mulcair, who served as a Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, is one of only a few NDP MPs with any experience in government.

So the NDP Leader will need a transition team composed of people with real governing experience. One wonders what former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow is doing in his spare time these days. (Mr. Romanow did not respond to a request for an interview, and a spokesperson for the NDP said the party does not comment on transition planning.)

But a good transition team should go unnoticed, like a movie soundtrack. Voters don't appreciate hearing about party planners drawing up invitation lists for the swearing-in ceremony before the votes have been cast.

In the final weeks of the 2004 federal campaign, the Conservatives began acting as though they had the election won, which contributed to a great, last-minute slosh of voters back to the Liberals.

That is why all political parties try to keep the membership of their transition teams secret and their activities out of the news. The fact that the NDP transition team is already creating waves, three months before the election, is not smart.

"The last thing a transition team wants is any – any – publicity about what it's doing," said Derek Burney in an interview.

Mr. Burney, who was Brian Mulroney's chief of staff, was part of the 2004 Conservative transition team. The briefing binders he prepared for Stephen Harper provided the new Conservative Leader with his first real exposure to how government worked, and he asked Mr. Burney to head up the 2006 transition.

One of the most important jobs of such a team, Mr. Burney said, is to manage the transition "from stagecraft to statecraft" – from winning an election to running a government.

Canadian governments often don't handle transitions well. As Mr. Burney pointed out, there is no tradition, as exists in other countries, of senior public servants briefing opposition party leaders.

When David Lindsay, former Ontario premier Mike Harris's first chief of staff, arrived at the premier's office the morning after the Conservatives won the 1995 election to begin the transition, he said he felt like the first North Vietnamese soldier cycling into Saigon. (Cycling into Saigon by David Cameron and Graham White, ably chronicled that smoothly handled transition.)

Outgoing government leaders can help or hinder the process. Stephen Harper should be directing his senior staff and public servants to prepare for an NDP or Liberal victory. Just in case.

Some clichés deserve repeating: The smooth and orderly transition of power is one of the glories of democracy. Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair should be actively preparing for that transition.

They just shouldn't be talking about it.