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john ibbitson

We are entering an exciting and tumultuous period in national politics, as progressive reaction to Stephen Harper's Conservatives increasingly coalesces around Thomas Mulcair, further dividing Canadian politics into stark choices between left and right. The Western premiers are part of the proof.

Premiers and ministers of the Prairie and Pacific provinces and the three territories are in Edmonton Tuesday for talks. One thing they plan to discuss is the message coming from the new leader of the NDP.

Mr. Mulcair has galvanized debate across Canada with his warning that unfettered development of the oil sands is not only damaging the environment, it is driving up the dollar and hurting manufacturing in Ontario and Quebec.

"This is about the future of the economy of the country," he told reporters on Monday outside the Commons, "maintaining the equilibrium, coming up with a strategy that will allow us to maintain a vital industrial sector."

Mr. Mulcair accuses the Conservative government of failing to require oil and other natural resource companies to pay the full environmental cost of their operations, and would compel them to do so if the NDP came to power.

"It's about the enforcement of federal legislation," he said. "Since the beginning, we've made it clear that we're very concerned that the federal government is not enforcing federal law."

Mr. Mulcair's message is powerful, first and foremost because he believes it. He was saying it months ago, long before he won the leadership. Cynics forget the impact that a principled argument, passionately held, can have.

The NDP leader offers opponents of Stephen Harper a standard around which to rally. This is the first time that progressive forces have been able to put forward a leader and a message that offer such a compelling alternative to the Prime Minister and his conservative orthodoxy.

The NDP message plays into a great shift under way in Canadian politics, one that pits right-wing and left-wing values against each other on economic issues, with fewer and fewer voters clinging to centrist compromise.

A Forum research poll released on Monday shows the NDP with a narrow lead over the Conservatives, and Mr. Mulcair ahead of Mr. Harper in popularity.

"Mulcair is doing a great job as leader of the NDP," said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research. "He seems to be resonating with the public."

The poll shows a growing tide of concern among Canadians over income inequality. "The country is moving a little bit to the left," Mr. Bozinoff believes, even as Mr. Mulcair seeks to make his party more credible on economic issues.

English Canadians may not be taking to the streets the way the union-backed students have in Montreal, but many of them are worried and resentful over sluggish economic and job growth, and they are channelling that concern into support for the NDP.

A growing number are also taken with Mr. Mulcair's theory about Western oil costing Central Canadian jobs. A recent Harris/Decima poll showed 41 per cent of respondents agreeing with Mr. Mulcair, while 45 per cent disagreed.

Doug Anderson, senior vice-president of Harris/Decima, cautions that support for the NDP leader's position isn't strong outside Quebec, and that people aren't paying that much attention to federal politics in any case.

He also suspects that Mr. Mulcair could still be enjoying a honeymoon from his leadership victory last March, and that future numbers could show NDP support softening.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, "it has become the status quo" that the NDP are either first or second in the popular vote, where they have been now for more than a year. This is a tremendous change in the political life of the nation, and it appears to have become entrenched.

When Mr. Mulcair heads west later this week to tour the oil sands and meet with provincial politicians, his progress will be covered closely. It is difficult to remember the last time a trip by an opposition leader has garnered this much attention.

Mr. Mulcair will be heavily criticized by politicians and pundits during his travels. He won't care. He knows he is succeeding where everyone who came before him failed: rallying opposition to the Harper Conservatives around one idea and one figure.

The Conservatives will welcome this. A head-to-head fight between the left and the right, between Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper, is exactly what both sides want.

For in a political war between progressives and conservatives, there is no room for a party of the centre, for the Liberal Party, which is entrenched in a distant third place.

That may be Mr. Mulcair's greatest achievement: to take on the Western premiers, to take on the oil interests, to take on the Conservatives in the cause of the environment and of factory workers in central Canada.

And to leave the Liberals forgotten in his wake.