Skip to main content

Fighting for attention in Canada's biggest city and its surrounding region, the Leader of the Official Opposition is set to deliver what his campaign team is billing as "an incredibly Toronto-specific" pitch.

At a campaign-style rally on Sunday that New Democrats are hoping will serve as a show of force, Thomas Mulcair will begin to lay out an "urban agenda" involving five core commitments: funding for public transit, a national child-care program, support for public housing, facilitating the recognition of foreign credentials, and a small-business tax cut.

Mr. Mulcair has previously signalled his platform in this year's election will be built around those policy areas, but his speech will provide details on what they will mean for the Greater Toronto Area. Notably, he will promise that within eight years the GTA would get 164,000 affordable daycare spaces under the $15-per-day national program his party is promising.

But as much as it will be aimed at highlighting his policies, the speech also signals a push to introduce Mr. Mulcair himself to a place that scarcely knows who he is. And the success or failure of that effort will go a long way toward determining who forms the next government.

The NDP currently has seven MPs in Toronto, all but two or three of whom appear to face tough fights in the campaign scheduled for fall. If New Democrats have much hope of building on the gains that propelled them to Official Opposition in 2011, they need to make inroads elsewhere in an area that will have approximately 55 of the country's 338 ridings under newly adopted boundaries. And in parts of the region where the NDP is not competitive, the extent to which NDP candidates split the vote could determine the results in head-to-head battles between Conservatives and Liberals.

New Democrats acknowledge that, as in much of the country outside Ottawa and Quebec, Mr. Mulcair's profile in Toronto is troublingly low. And they know it will be one of the toughest places in which to raise it.

Unlike in some smaller cities, an opposition leader often cannot attract media coverage simply by turning up. By his party's count Mr. Mulcair has spent 15 days in the GTA in the past seven weeks alone, but it is questionable how many local residents have noticed.

The GTA is also the most expensive place in the country in which to advertise, which is a problem for a party with less robust fundraising than its opponents. While all parties are likely to spend at or close to the national limit of slightly more than $20-million during the official writ period, the Conservatives and to a lesser extent the Liberals have more money to spend leading up to it.

Those parties may also get better value out of advertising in Toronto, because they are competitive in all the cities that surround it. The NDP holds federal seats only in the city itself, and with the exception of Brampton – where popular MPP Jagmeet Singh is persistently rumoured to be plotting a federal run – Mr. Mulcair's party has shown few signs of competitiveness in those suburbs.

While such considerations contributed to the provincial NDP all but giving up on the GTA in last year's Ontario election, and ultimately losing three of its six local seats, Mr. Mulcair's advisers stress they have no intention of doing likewise.

They insist Toronto-area voters, along with Canadians elsewhere, will warm to Mr. Mulcair the more they get to know him. On Sunday, as in other public appearances since he changed some of his staff and advisers this winter, the NDP Leader will speak more personally than he was previously willing to do – seeking to draw a contrast with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and especially Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, by highlighting how his blue-collar background helps him understand Canadians' everyday struggles. And that backstory is likely to feature in whatever advertising campaign the NDP is able to muster in the months ahead.

In addition to New Democrats, many Conservatives are hoping Mr. Mulcair will be able to sustain such an effort in the Toronto area, and get a bit of traction with it. That's because they're counting on the NDP to pull votes away from the Liberals in suburban battlegrounds.

Not that Mr. Mulcair's campaign team is ready to accept a role as spoiler. Making inroads in the GTA, one of his advisers said Friday, is essential to competing for government. This weekend's event is meant to show that the NDP intends to do just that.