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Politics The pragmatist: Thomas Mulcair and the new ambitions of the NDP

The pragmatist

Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal New Democrats, began his political life as a member of Quebec’s Liberal cabinet. But those who know him say he hasn’t really changed: His views – socially progressive, fiscally restrained – are the same as they ever were. What has changed, explains Jeffrey Simpson, are the ambitions of the party he now represents

Photography by John Lehmann

David Zussman, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a long-time adviser to Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, received a telephone call this past February from an unlikely source.

An NDP staffer explained that party Leader Thomas Mulcair would like to discuss Prof. Zussman’s book, Off and Running, about how to organize government transitions such as he had planned for Mr. Chrétien after the 1993 election. Prof. Zussman did not quite know what to expect. The New Democrats were in third place in the polls. Under such circumstances, an NDP leader should be thinking about politics and policy, not how to set up a new government.

But Prof. Zussman learned in their conversation that Mr. Mulcair had read Off and Running over the Christmas holidays. He had annotated the book, put yellow stickers with questions and comments on pages, and came to the meeting with many queries.

The party leaders

A closer look at the three men with a chance to become the next Prime Minister

Previously: Stephen Harper, Conservative Party

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This week: Thomas Mulcair, New Democratic Party

“I was really impressed that he would think about this sort of stuff,” Prof. Zussman recalled. “We had a very thorough discussion about what was in the book. It was interesting to me that he was genuinely interested in governing. He kept asking, ‘How do you do this right?’”

Thinking about transition to government had never been a priority for any previous NDP leader, except perhaps as a theoretical exercise. In election campaigns, a polite fiction required party officials to repeat that the NDP might win and that its leader could become “the next prime minister of Canada,” as those who introduced the leader would shout. Nobody believed it, not even the leaders. Until Tom Mulcair actually tried to position his party to win.

On the eve of the current election, it appeared the New Democrats had a chance to do just that. Polls consistently showed them leading the Conservatives and Liberals in a tight three-way contest. The NDP had won in the most unlikely place – Alberta – why not across the country? Anti-Harper sentiment was widespread, and Mr. Mulcair was fashioning the NDP as the best agent for change, while trying to reassure voters that the party had grown up, shaken off ideology, and was ready to govern. If the NDP could not win an outright majority, then it might still take power through an understanding with the Liberals.

The lure of power had allowed Mr. Mulcair – intelligent, driven, a pragmatist and political centrist – to bring even the party’s left-wingers onside with his strategy of appealing to the middle class, stressing balanced budgets, promising no personal income-tax increases even on the better-off, and not going overboard on new social-policy spending.

Those who knew him well in Quebec politics, where he had been a member of the centrist Liberal Party, had never thought of him as a left-winger. His boss then was premier Jean Charest, with whom he worked harmoniously until he was dropped from a senior cabinet post – over principle or personality, depending on one’s perspective. “We never had any sense there was a socialist bent in Tom,” Mr. Charest said in an interview. “He was more viewed on the right side of cabinet. I would describe him as a fiscal conservative.”

Now the NDP is slumping in national polls. If the party falls back to third place, from first at the start of the campaign, questions will surely be asked about Mr. Mulcair’s pragmatic positioning of the party. How, critics will ask, could the Liberals with Justin Trudeau – the leader with the famous name, whom Mr. Mulcair considers his intellectual inferior – overtake the NDP as the preferred alternative to the Harper Conservatives?

While previous leader Jack Layton had taken the party from fourth to second and been lionized, a slip to third would leave Mr. Mulcair with much to answer for – although if there is one aspect of his personality everyone agrees upon, it is that he defends his corner, hard.

It would have been instructive in understanding Mr. Mulcair better if he had consented to an interview.

All efforts by The Globe and Mail to interview him in person failed over two months. E-mail and in-person requests made to various people, from the chief press officer and chief of staff to the press secretary and campaign manager, led nowhere. Eventually, our inquiries were sent down the chain of command, and landed with a junior press officer, who did not return calls. Ten weeks after our initial request, and shortly before going to press, The Globe and Mail was offered a telephone interview – an offer we declined due to the imminent publication date. That prompted a senior aide to say that a face-to-face interview could be arranged; this request was rejected for the same reason.

Nonetheless, interviews on and off the record with Mr. Mulcair’s friends and with past and current colleagues, along with his autobiography, a close look at the public record and an understanding of his party’s evolution, provide insight into a man who wants intensely to lead the country.

Thinking about transition to government had never been a priority for any previous NDP leader, except perhaps as a theoretical exercise – until Thomas Mulcair actually tried to position his party to win.


Riding the ‘orange wave’

The NDP, like the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation before it, was for opposition. The NDP did not win national elections, so it comforted itself with moral victories. The party described itself as the “nation’s conscience,” because the NDP had never been able to describe itself as the nation’s government.

Each election was trench warfare for the federal NDP: some gains here; some losses there; incremental moves forward or occasional surges; depressing setbacks. As recently as the 2000 election, the party received a desultory 9 per cent of the vote. Even the charismatic Mr. Layton was unable to move the NDP above 18.2 per cent and 37 seats in the 2008 election.

The party’s dirty secret lay in pretending to contest elections everywhere, while husbanding its resources for the minority of Commons races in which it could be competitive, a luxury denied the larger parties. Years ago, the party used to draw up lists of A, B and C ridings: It held or might win A ridings, had an outside shot at capturing B ridings, and forget about C ridings – always by far the most numerous, including every constituency in Quebec.

The election of 2011 changed the party’s calculations. Suddenly, the NDP became the Official Opposition, a step from power, propelled there by an unexpected “orange wave” in Quebec. Since 1962, the NDP in Quebec had been in double figures as a share of the popular vote only three times in 16 elections. And while it started the 2011 campaign in predictable fourth place behind the Bloc Québécois, Liberals and Conservatives, the NDP ended election night with 43 per cent and almost four-fifths of the province’s seats.

From that result forward, the NDP had to begin thinking rather than dreaming about power and how to achieve it, which first meant figuring out how to behave as the Official Opposition. Setting the NDP on a course for power had been Mr. Layton’s ambition. He led the party to its longest step in that direction – and then, suddenly, he died, succeeded by Mr. Mulcair, his Quebec lieutenant, who had been a Quebec cabinet minister until that stage of his career abruptly ended. Mr. Mulcair knew about the exercise of power, and as his discussion with David Zussman revealed, he was even thinking about how to organize its transfer to the NDP, a subject as unnecessary for previous leaders as learning German from scratch.

Brian Mulroney has called Mr. Mulcair the best opposition leader since John Diefenbaker. Mr. Mulcair can be charming, and he can be alienating. He can be conciliatory and sharp, cagey and direct. But he always keeps his eyes on the prize.


‘His Irish side and his Gallic side’

Everyone agrees that Tom Mulcair is very smart. He has a good “formation,” as the French say, educated at McGill in common and civil law, the offspring of a francophone mother descended from Quebec’s third premier and of an Irish Quebec father.

Mr. Mulcair was the second-oldest in a brood of 10 children. Although his father worked in the insurance business as an executive ad broker, “money was tight,” as Mr. Mulcair writes in his autobiography, Strength of Conviction. His father, he says, instilled in him concern for the less fortunate, as did a teacher, Father Jean, at his secondary school. They were the formative male influences in his early life.

Mr. Mulcair started part-time employment at 14, and kept working at different jobs to help the family and pay his way through law school. The labouring jobs showed him, as his father said, “there’s a whole different world out there” beyond the modest but white-collar life of his upbringing. He grew up neither poor nor rich but, as he puts it in NDP television ads, as a member of the “middle class,” today the bull’s eye for all political parties in search of votes.

He has been happily married to a French national (Mr. Mulcair has dual citizenship as a result), who is a Canadian citizen and a psychologist. He is still self-evidently in love. His wife, Catherine Pinhas, took a leave of absence to accompany him on every step of the campaign. When he wades into a crowd, she is beside him; when he speaks, she is in the front row. They have two married sons, and are often seen holding hands in public. She has greatly helped his written and oral French; in every job from law-school days on, Mr. Mulcair has been using and improving his French, so that today his bilingualism is extraordinary for a native English-speaker.

In his free time, Mr. Mulcair likes to unwind by taking long, solitary swims at their cottage in the Laurentians. He used to play hockey, where he was known as a physical player.

On the political front, Mr. Mulcair’s admirers underscore a propensity for hard work, excellent preparation and intellectual curiosity. Some have remarked on an admirable trait for any leader: knowing what you do not know. Mr. Mulcair asks a lot of questions, although on the campaign he has honed the political skill of turning answers to questions into sculptures of talking points. He has what might be called a lawyer’s mind: Assemble facts based on inquiry, arrange the points into a coherent argument, then present it forcefully – sometimes remorselessly – like a prosecutor in court. This way of thinking and arguing made him an effective debater and performer in the Quebec National Assembly and later in the House of Commons Question Period.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has called Mr. Mulcair the best leader of the opposition in the Commons since John Diefenbaker. Mr. Mulcair’s style, however, has wounded colleagues and contributed to his reputation as a man with rough edges and sharp elbows. If not Angry Tom, an epithet critics have used for him, then Mr. Mulcair can occasionally be a piledriver. When he departed Quebec politics – he resigned or was expelled, depending on the narrative – he left some bitter colleagues and an exasperated Liberal premier in Mr. Charest. Mr. Diefenbaker once remarked that in politics “it’s a long road that has no ashcans.” Mr. Mulcair left plenty of ashcans in the Quebec Liberal Party, his first political home before jumping to the federal NDP.

Mr. Mulcair can be charming, and he can be alienating. He can be conciliatory and sharp, cagey and direct. But he always keeps his eyes on the prize. He assimilates information to get where he wants to go, not for the sake of rumination. He is a man of action, not a philosopher or an ideologue.

Jack Harris, a Newfoundland MP and Mulcair supporter in the NDP leadership campaign, sees two sides of his leader’s character. “He’s got his Irish side and his Gallic side,” Mr. Harris said. “If you talk about being able to be warm and engaged and friendly and gregarious, he has that in his personality, although he doesn’t show that often in his public persona. The Gallic side is the Cartesian side, the legalistic side that he showed in Question Period – his legal background and his intellectualism.”

John Parisella, a former director of the Liberal Party of Quebec, who knew Mr. Mulcair in his prepolitical years, sees the same dualism, only in reverse. “The affable, retail politician is the French side. The Irish side is the combative side, and that side of him is why you’ll hear that he will not suffer fools lightly. He seems to be caught between being a politician and being a lawyer.”

William Knight, who has been in and around the NDP for something bordering on eternity as a former NDP MP from Saskatchewan, principal secretary to former federal leader Ed Broadbent and to Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney, and federal party secretary, doesn’t mind the sharp elbows. “He brings a toughness to the job that is very attractive. This is a leader I could sign on with,” Mr. Knight said. “Toughness means [saying], ‘You’re out of line and I’m going to be prime minister, and if you don’t get into line, you’ll be kicking horse turds down the road.’ I think this guy does have a short fuse. He’s not in the least afraid of going into the corner with his elbows up. Certain personalities can deal with that. Other personalities almost wilt.”

Libby Davies, who is retiring as MP for Vancouver East, ended her career as a deputy NDP leader. She worked closely with Mr. Mulcair from the day he arrived in Ottawa as an MP and has watched him evolve. “I see a maturity in him,” she said. “I think he’s definitely grown as a leader. … Remember, when he arrived he was the sole [NDP] MP from Quebec. I don’t know what word to use since I am aware that you are quoting me – maybe ‘chippy,’ like ‘I’m the guy from Quebec. What I say, you better get it.’ There was that edge, right. But now as leader, he’s still very strong, but he’s got more depth in terms of listening to people and responding to what they are saying. At his last caucus meeting, he mentioned how he appreciated that people had given him space to become what he was becoming.”

If an NDP win in Alberta, why not one in Ottawa?

Alas, for the NDP Leader, only a few Canadians follow Question Period. Mr. Mulcair might have been hitting home runs in media accounts of his questioning skills, and thrilling NDP MPs with his precise, even clinical questions in the Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin affairs, but there were too many strikeouts, pop flies and bunt singles with the general public.

Frustration slowly grew inside the NDP caucus in 2014 as the party watched the Liberals soar in the polls early in Mr. Trudeau’s leadership. New Democrats believed their leader to have more intellectual heft and political experience. Tom Mulcair was a prime-minister-in-waiting on merit; Justin Trudeau was one on style.

The NDP partly had itself to blame. It spent one summer preaching Senate abolition, a dead horse of an issue because most Canadians couldn’t care less about the institution and have no idea how to change or reform it. Those who read the Supreme Court decision on Senate change understand that the institution cannot be abolished or even substantially reformed without unanimous provincial consent, the equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube.

The party wasted another summer blathering on about its “affordability campaign,” a pastiche of little promises. Among them were capping ATM fees at 50 cents, reducing credit-card interest, bringing down gasoline prices, cracking down on payday loans. How these objectives were to be achieved was never explained. The campaign reflected poll-driven populism or small-ball politics, hardly what the NDP had stood for in the eyes of Canadians. Moreover, the pitch sounded like something the Conservatives would make: that Canadians were somehow economically stretched and needed relief, preferably by more tax cuts. That NDP campaign predictably flopped.

The caucus was restless, unhappy not so much with Mr. Mulcair as with the party’s lack of resonance with the media and in the country at large. Anne McGrath and Brad Lavigne, Jack Layton loyalists who had left following his death, returned to help the party and its leader. Mr. Mulcair’s chief of staff was moved aside to make room for Alain Gaul, a Montreal lawyer who had been his chief of staff in Quebec politics.

Starting earlier this year, the NDP set out to get Mr. Mulcair better known, sending him across Canada, arranging endless photo opportunities, and pasting a broad smile on his face everywhere he went. The party started talking about bigger issues: $15-a-day child care, a new climate-change policy and higher corporate taxes.

Mr. Mulcair got lucky, too. Out of nowhere, the provincial NDP took power in Alberta, instantly raising the question in at least some voters’ minds: If in Alberta, for heaven’s sake, why not in Ottawa? The NDP’s national numbers zoomed, as did Mr. Mulcair’s personal standing. In some polls, he came out on top as the best pick for prime minister. Timing, if not everything, then certainly of considerable importance in politics, was working in his favour.

This past summer, before Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the election, the NDP had momentum. The Liberals languished in third place, their leader’s reputation damaged. Mr. Harper’s Conservatives were stalled, with the party base still loyal but few other Canadians interested in giving them another term in office. Time for a change – the most potent of all political forces – seemed to be swinging the NDP’s way.

Prime Minister Tom Mulcair: It sounded wonderful to NDP partisans, who turned out in impressive numbers as their leader toured the country in July, asking audiences “Are you ready for change?” To a growing number of voters outside the traditional NDP base, the answers seemed to be “Yes” or at least “Maybe.” It was the best summer in NDP history. Maybe Mr. Mulcair had been a clairvoyant student. The lessons from Prof. Zussman’s book about transitions might just be needed.

Bucking the Broadbent factor

Mr. Mulcair had demonstrated his political skill in winning the NDP’s leadership and knitting the caucus and party together afterward. In 2012, he defeated party president Brian Topp 57 to 43 per cent on the final ballot. Five sitting MPs had also run. Mr. Mulcair wisely gave them important responsibilities as front-bench critics.

As a Quebecker, he was not well-known in NDP circles outside the province. He could not have won the leadership on Quebec support alone, so he slogged across the country, building an organization that came together after people got to know him better. In British Columbia, nearly the entire provincial party hierarchy was for his principal adversary, Mr. Topp. But people such as Doug MacArthur, a long-time civil servant in NDP governments in Saskatchewan and B.C., signed on for his campaign. Indeed, Mr. MacArthur organized the first private party for Mr. Mulcair to meet potential supporters in Vancouver.

“I knew his history and record in Quebec, not in detail, but I liked what I saw. His general approach to governing, his principles, his toughness, his decisiveness, his ability to get things done …,” Mr. MacArthur recalled. Then there was Mr. Mulcair’s pragmatism. “He has a way of presenting that people are attracted to; his style of progressivism, his sense of good government. There is a certain school in the NDP that find that very attractive.”

Many are also attracted to his intellectual curiosity, his wanting to know about issues before jumping to conclusions. This characteristic impressed Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia who later became co-chair of Mr. Mulcair’s leadership campaign in B.C. They met before Mr. Mulcair became leader, when the party was debating what to do about the Canadian mission to Afghanistan.

“He really impressed me from the start,” Prof. Byers said. “This is a guy who really does his homework. He prepared for meetings. He didn’t talk too much, but always had something useful to say, and was of particular value because he understood how the issue would play in Quebec.”

Prof. Byers, an Arctic specialist who is committed to action against climate change, saw that same commitment in Mr. Mulcair. “That he understood the peer-reviewed science on climate change and was committed to providing a serious response impressed me,” the professor said. “I wanted a leader who understood the importance of the issue and saw it not as a political liability but actually as something that would attract voter support over time; that this wasn’t something to be afraid of as a political issue but something to embrace.”

Mr. Mulcair had stayed away from personal attacks in the campaign. As Prof. Byers put it, “I believe that part of the reason that Tom is the party leader is because he chose to run an entirely positive campaign, which was not easy because Brian Topp was running a very negative campaign against Tom. It took a monumental effort of will to maintain that entirely positive stance.”

Ed Broadbent, the former NDP leader and a sort of elder statesman in the NDP, took part in the negative campaign against Mr. Mulcair. In a maladroit intervention late in the campaign, Mr. Broadbent laid into the eventual winner. Mr. Broadbent had disliked British Labour leader Tony Blair’s shift toward the centre of the political spectrum. He saw Mr. Mulcair as a Canadian version of Mr. Blair. Mr. Broadbent was a social democrat intent on redistributing income from rich to poor through higher taxes – an approach favoured by Mr. Topp but rejected by Mr. Mulcair during the leadership campaign and since.

Mr. Broadbent minced no words in a series of interviews. “It would be a central mistake for us to move in a calculating way to the centre,” he said. He warned that “people should look carefully at the fact that, of the people who were there [in caucus from 2007 to 2011] with Tom, 90 per cent of them are supporting other candidates.” The inference was clear: Here was a guy with whom others could not work and who therefore could not hold a caucus together.

Mr. Broadbent was wrong, at least about holding the caucus together. Mr. Mulcair accomplished that job brilliantly, defying predictions, after the 2011 election, that the wave of inexperienced and often very young MPs from Quebec, the flotsam of the orange wave, would fly off in different directions and make endless gaffes. Mr. Broadbent subsequently made public peace with Mr. Mulcair. He even wrote a gracious introduction for Mr. Mulcair’s autobiography, hailing the Quebecker’s “determination to back his principles with action.”

The NDP as Official Opposition has been a unified party, presenting a forceful alternative to the Harper Conservatives. The party’s left-wingers and those seeking a closer alignment with organized labour stifled whatever concerns they had in the face of the NDP’s apparent popularity.

‘When he left I was very surprised that he went to the NDP,’ says Monique Jérôme-Forget, a friend and former cabinet colleague, ‘because I regarded him as … I wouldn’t say right-wing but certainly not left-wing. Not at all.’


‘A man of the centre or centre-left’

Mr. Broadbent was correct, however, about Mr. Mulcair’s not being a social democrat, at least as Mr. Broadbent would define the term. Nothing in Mr. Mulcair’s long career in public advocacy, public administration, law or provincial politics suggested anything beyond having a solid social conscience. He was never associated with redistribution of income, higher taxes on the wealthy or an expanded role for the state to manage the economy – all characteristics of European-style social democracy of the kind Mr. Broadbent and many other New Democrats favoured. Canada-as-Sweden was never part of Mr. Mulcair’s thoughts.

He had been involved in defending English-language rights in Quebec, always in the context of improving relations between Quebec’s English- and French-speaking citizens as an early member of Alliance Quebec; in ensuring proper administration of professions as the head of a government body overseeing them; and, later on, in the environment. He was naturally interested in many public-policy issues, including concern for the less fortunate, but good public administration and the environment were his touchstones, not the customary issues defining social democracy. At least that is how many of his friends and cabinet colleagues in the Liberal Party of Quebec remember him.

Michel Audet was Quebec’s minister of finance in the cabinet with Mr. Mulcair. “After three or four years of working together, he struck me as an homme de droit not an homme de gauche,” Mr. Audet recalled. “All of his interventions were rather about the size of government or about the fact that the civil servants were what he called ‘les fons-fons’ [a colourful way of describing people who obstruct progress or go in circles] – a caste of people who were not trustworthy and about whom you had to be skeptical. He never had great confidence in civil servants, that’s the least you can say. So imagine my surprise when he joined a party that is very associated with the civil service, notably the public-sector unions. That was a shock to me, because that wasn’t my perception of Tom Mulcair.”

Monique Jérôme-Forget, a friend and cabinet colleague, was head of the Treasury Board and, as such, a leader in the fight against Quebec’s deficit. “I was freezing all departments except health and education. Tom was a solid soldier there. He never came to cry, to say, ‘I cannot do that, it’s not possible.’ He was a great supporter of that approach. In fact, to tell you the truth, when he left, I was very surprised that he went to the NDP because I regarded him as … I wouldn’t say right-wing but certainly not left-wing. Not at all…When he went with Jack Layton, I couldn’t believe it. I thought he might go for the Liberals, or even with the Conservatives.” She laughed when recalling that Mr. Mulcair used to call Quebec’s very nationalist newspaper, Le Devoir, “Pravda” because it was too left-wing.

“Today,” she continued, “when you see the NDP saying no to tax increases, and recommending a balanced budget, my reaction is, ‘Exactly, it is very much Tom.’”

Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer and university professor who describes himself as further to the political left than Mr. Mulcair, uses the rather loose term “progressive” to describe his old friend. “Progressive is a word one can use for modern social democrats or liberals who believe that the forces of the market must be tempered in order to provide more social justice, and who, in his case, believed earlier than anybody I know that the environment issue had to be tackled urgently,” Prof. Grey said.

“A progressive is not a dogmatic socialist or an old-style market-oriented liberal. He’s a man in between. I always saw Tom as a man of the centre, or centre-left, which in my words is a progressive … He was more pragmatic than we were. He understood that if we want to get anything done, we should not take positions that are untenable. … If you try to do something that is completely out of tune with the times, you usually fall flat on your face.”

The Liberal Party of Quebec was the logical place for Tom Mulcair when he decided to enter politics. The Quebec NDP was a speck on the political scene; it didn’t even have a provincial wing. The left of the spectrum, even if Mr. Mulcair had chosen to head there, was occupied by the Parti Québécois, with its ties to the powerful trade unions and its vocation to separate Quebec from Canada, an objective Mr. Mulcair has always vigorously opposed. The Liberal Party was the party for anglophones. It was sprawling, ideologically speaking, with ties to big business. It was also hierarchical, with the grassroots taking orders from the top – very unlike the more participatory tradition of the federal NDP, to which Mr. Mulcair would later have to become accustomed.

Mr. Mulcair ran in the 1994 provincial election and won easily in Chomedey, a very safe Liberal riding in Laval whose polyglot ethnicity had surrounded Mr. Mulcair for some of his childhood. He turned out to be a good retail politician on the doorsteps and in the shops. He also became a formidable debater in the National Assembly and a vigorous campaigner in the 1995 referendum narrowly won by federalist forces.

After the referendum, Mr. Charest, leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party and a prominent campaigner for the “No” side, was implored by federalists of all stripes to leave Ottawa, go to Quebec and become leader of the provincial Liberal Party. Mr. Charest obliged, but it became immediately clear that he needed help.

The PQ government had an array of veteran politicians. The Quebec media portrayed Mr. Charest as a “Canadian” politician, not a “Quebecker.” He had won the party leadership but did not really know the party. He had to become much better known throughout Quebec and do battle daily in the National Assembly with the Péquistes. For this, he surrounded himself with what he calls a “Praetorian Guard,” a kind of Rat Pack of debaters who would give the PQ government no quarter. Attack, attack was the strategy.

Mr. Mulcair was in his element. He was redoubtable, relentless and very effective, displaying the debating talents he would later demonstrate in the House of Commons. Mr. Charest liked him then, and appreciated his help. “He was a loner, but in the Assembly he was one of those who would go to bat. If you’re the opposition leader, you appreciate that because it’s a rare quality,” Mr. Charest said. “Not everyone has that willingness to engage in battle, with all the risks that accompany that. Tom was one of those in opposition that I relied on to fight the Péquistes.”

‘His relationships with his colleagues were never very good because he was a loner, and not viewed as always being loyal,’ says Jean Charest. ‘He was very hard with his colleagues. In committee meetings, it was to the point where cabinet colleagues would actually cry.’


‘Very hard with his colleagues’

Mr. Mulcair could go too far, however. As environment minister, he alleged in 2002 that a former PQ cabinet minister, Yves Duhaime, had been involved in an influence-peddling scheme with the PQ government. When the two men crossed paths outside a television studio, Mr. Mulcair blurted out words heard by those present: “I can’t wait to see you in jail, you Péquiste slut.” Mr. Duhaime sued, and three years later won a $95,000 settlement for defamation. The judge ruled that Mr. Mulcair’s accusations were “false, unjust, defamatory and prejudicial.” The allegations, he added, were “malicious and abusive.”

The PQ howled for Mr. Mulcair’s resignation. Mr. Charest stood by his minister, although he could have thrown him overboard. The Liberal Party paid the settlement. Mr. Mulcair makes no mention of the case in his autobiography.

Mr. Charest was interested in environmental files, having been federal environment minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government. He wanted a strong player in the environment portfolio – and, for quite a while, Mr. Mulcair was a popular minister. He gained almost universal acclaim for including in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms a new right to enjoy a healthy environment that respects biodiversity. It was the first definition of a clean environment as a right in North America. He also presented a new Sustainable Development Act.

His ministry was renamed the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks. His department began to enforce regulations with more stringency than before. Mr. Mulcair opposed several high-profile industrial projects on environmental grounds. He seemed publicly to be on a political roll, except inside cabinet and especially with his boss, Mr. Charest.

Mr. Mulcair has always insisted that he “resigned” from the Quebec government in opposition to a proposed housing development near a ski resort at a government park at Mont Orford in southeastern Quebec. What proponents believed would be a lifeline for the struggling resort, thereby saving existing jobs while creating new ones, others decried as a sellout of public land to private developers.

Mr. Mulcair’s “resignation” created a kind of heroic aura around him as a man of principle willing to give up a successful political career. This portrayal is correct, to a point. It never is easy for any minister at the height of his influence to quit. What brought about his departure, however, is more complicated. Mr. Mulcair had strained relations with some of his cabinet colleagues long before Mont Orford and, fatally for him, with the premier.

Mr. Charest, who has never previously spoken publicly about the split, offered this explanation of what went on inside cabinet. “I got along well with him, and liked him personally,” Mr. Charest told The Globe. “His relationships with his colleagues, however, were never very good because he was a loner, and not viewed as always being loyal.”

On several files, Mr. Charest began to sense that Mr. Mulcair would say one thing in cabinet, then something more nuanced outside, suggesting public opposition to projects he had privately supported. Gradually, Mr. Mulcair was alienating some cabinet colleagues, as Mr. Charest made abundantly clear.

“The issue within the cabinet became his behaviour with colleagues because he was quite brutal. No, I don’t want to use that word. He was very hard with his colleagues. In cabinet committee meetings, it was to the point where cabinet colleagues would actually cry. … His behaviour with his colleagues was very rough. … He was very, very abrupt, rough, so I was getting these reports about how he was behaving with his colleagues.”

At one cabinet committee meeting devoted to the Mont Orford project, matters came to a head for Mr. Charest when Mr. Mulcair criticized and brought to tears a colleague and a close friend of Mr. Charest, Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, like the premier, an MLA from the Eastern Townships.

“She was the regional minister for handling the file, and there was a run-in in the cabinet committee where he tore a strip off of her right in front of me,” Mr. Charest said. “That was brutal. And that’s when I said, ‘Enough of this kind of behaviour.’ Around the cabinet table, the colleagues who were working with me, they knew I liked him. But you reach a point where they look at the premier and they say, ‘Does the premier have the wherewithal and the guts to deal with this guy, or is he going to run roughshod over the whole group?’”

In Mr. Charest’s telling, he had no choice but to remove Mr. Mulcair, demoting him to an insignificant position in cabinet. At that point, Mr. Mulcair resigned, which Mr. Charest almost certainly anticipated. No other minister or caucus member left with Mr. Mulcair; he left alone, to praise from some for standing on principle, but with dry eyes around the cabinet table.

The accusation that he was so insensitive to Ms. Gagnon-Tremblay that she cried was confirmed by Mr. Audet, the former finance minister. “I was a witness to this,” he recalled, “because it happened in the committee over which I was presiding. … We have to remember that in politics things are not always easy, so these things are sometimes part of life. But he had a way of being very brutal. I was the one who asked him to change his tone because it wasn’t the way to work in the government. It was then fine.”

Ms. Jérôme-Forget was there. “Angry Tom? The only time I ever saw him angry was with Monique Gagnon-Tremblay when he was minister of the environment in that priorities committee where we were five ministers plus the chiefs of staffs plus the premier. I don’t remember him being that aggressive. He was definitely against her on the issue of Mont Orford – and, by the way, he was right! My memory is that with his finger he pointed at Monique that she was wrong. But to me, I didn’t regard that as very aggressive. If she cried for that, well, I would not have cried for something like that. I didn’t see her crying.” Ms. Jérôme-Forget and others in cabinet thought Orford to be a mistake. “I remember saying to Charest, ‘This is going to smack us right in the face,’ and indeed it did.”

Ms. Gagnon-Tremblay declined to be interviewed, saying she was still “quite bitter,” adding that she did not want to “comment on anyone about whom she could not say anything positive.” She recently told La Presse newspaper that Mr. Mulcair had not opposed the project in cabinet but then took a public position against it. Mr. Charest also recalls private support but public opposition – a charge Mr. Mulcair vehemently denied through a spokesman in connection with the La Presse article.

“Tom wasn’t opposed to it,” Mr. Charest said. “The problem we had was that Tom kept telling us, ‘Oh sure, we’ll get this done. There’s a solution.’ But what we found was he was telling those who were opposed that he was going to oppose it.”

Mr. Mulcair also had many dustups with Michelle Courchesne, the minister responsible for the Montreal area, but she too has refused interviews about the NDP Leader.

Before Mr. Mulcair’s departure, and certainly thereafter, the Mont Orford project became a cause célèbre for environmentalists. The media covered the evolving controversy. Important local voices spoke against turning over any parkland to developers, even if it might help a money-losing ski resort. Eventually, the developers’ interest waned in the face of public protest. The Charest government backed off. Mr. Mulcair was proven right, in political terms at least.

To say that Mr. Mulcair burned his bridges with the Liberal Party would be an understatement. One very senior minister from those years, who did not want to be quoted by name because of the public position he now holds, looked back over Mr. Mulcair’s career and observed, “As soon as he had the sense of power – or the sense that he had some influence on power given to him by Jean Charest – he could do anything to his colleagues just to make his points and show his influence. He did not hesitate to ridicule you in public, even if you were a colleague, if you did not share his point of view.” The former minister continued, “When it was clear that Tom could not stay any longer – Tom himself had decided to leave – he decided to settle scores right and left. And others wanted to settle scores with him.”

So ended Mr. Mulcair’s 12 years as a provincial Liberal politician, years of serious accomplishments – a man of principle to some, a poor team player to others. He was without a job or a party, until Jack Layton came calling.

Former Quebec colleagues, whatever their recollections of their time in office together, now praise what they have seen from afar of the NDP Leader. “There are two things that I have observed since he became leader,” Mr. Charest said. “The first is his personal discipline. Two, the way he’s managed his caucus. He’s obviously managed it in a way that has imposed a great deal of discipline on them.”

The former senior minister who did not want to be identified said, “He is very, very smart. I admire his route because someone who is fired from a government – the way it all happened – then bounces back. My God, it’s quite something. I think he showed his political capabilities. He is very intelligent.”

Mr. Parisella, a long-time provincial Liberal, thinks his friend has the right stuff to be prime minister. “I believe he can handle the job for one very important reason,” he said. “Governing in Canada, you have to understand the dualism dynamic in the country. He understands the French-English dynamic as well as anyone I know, and I like to think I understand it pretty well.”

For the Conservatives, the niqab has been a perfect wedge issue. Mr. Mulcair could have slithered around it. Instead, and at political cost to the party, he has taken the right position, square up.


Le bon Jack’s Quebec lieutenant

Jack Layton had observed Mr. Mulcair’s career and demise in Quebec politics. For Mr. Layton, a Quebecker transplanted to Toronto, somehow putting the NDP on the federal map in Quebec would be critical to turn the party into a contender for power. In Mr. Mulcair, he saw a potential game-changer: a high-profile former politician with a positive reputation with Quebeckers the NDP needed to attract. Mr. Mulcair was bilingual, with experience in government and a high, generally positive profile with the public. All in all, an attractive bilan.

After months of intermittent contact, directly and through intermediaries, and after Mr. Mulcair spoke at the NDP national convention in Quebec City (although still a member of the Quebec National Assembly) the two men met with their wives at Le Village restaurant in Hudson, Que., near the Ontario border. They hit it off, personally and politically.

Mr. Layton was serious about making Quebec central to the federal NDP. He spoke French. He was slowly modernizing the federal party apparatus. He was surrounded by pragmatists. He would give Mr. Mulcair pride of place in caucus. Fini the rhetoric about NDP leaders intending to form government. He, Jack Layton, would set power as a serious objective, starting with becoming Leader of the Opposition in the next election. He needed Mr. Mulcair’s help.

A political party is greatly assisted when opponents screw up. Jean Chrétien resigned under duress as Liberal prime minister, pushed aside by Paul Martin’s supporters who had taken over most of the positions of importance in the party. The Liberals, consumed by factionalism, burned through two inept leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Competent ministers who happened to be Chrétien supporters departed.

One was Martin Cauchon, the minister of justice, whom the Martin forces did not like. They chased him from the safe Liberal seat of Outremont, and replaced him with Jean Lapierre who, in 2007, three years after being elected, took a radio job, leaving the seat vacant.

The federal riding of Outremont is not at all like the provincial riding of Chomedey. It has pockets of poor people and some multicultural diversity. It has a concentration of Hasidic Jews. But it also has some of Quebec’s richest francophones, and plenty of nationalist artists and professors who teach at Université de Montréal or Université du Québec. Knowing the Bloc Québécois would never win Outremont, these left-of-centre nationalists in a federal election could find comfort in a competitive NDP.

Without either Mr. Cauchon or Mr. Lapierre, the Liberals offered in the 2007 by-election Jocelyn Coulon, a respected writer on international affairs and a very nice man, but someone unschooled in politics. The NDP put up Mr. Mulcair, who ran an excellent campaign, attracted oodles of media attention and gave the NDP a wonderful by-election victory, winning 47 per cent of the vote. When Mr. Cauchon attempted a comeback in the 2011 federal election, Mr. Mulcair trounced him with 56 per cent of the vote. He had converted a safe Liberal seat of high socio-economic status into his own bastion.

Mr. Mulcair’s by-election win offered early indications of how the NDP could bleed separatist votes away from the Bloc Québécois. Keep the question of sovereignty off the table. When asked about separation, say 50 per cent plus one vote in favour of separation on a clear question, whatever that might be, would be enough for Quebec to become independent. This was official NDP policy, called the Sherbrooke Declaration, adopted in 2005 under Mr. Layton.

Separatists have their own ideas about how to proceed to independence, but the NDP’s conception was so close to their own that a federal vote for the NDP did not seem unreasonable. Furthermore, many of these armchair leftists in Outremont (and beyond) and other kinds of separatists were social and economic “progressives.” They could be comfortable voting NDP under the right circumstances. Not always, but sometimes. They did in the 2011 election, switching from the Bloc.

Mr. Mulcair, designated as Mr. Layton’s Quebec lieutenant upon reaching Parliament, travelled extensively throughout Quebec, alone or with the leader. He was the party’s top media voice, being interviewed everywhere. He helped recruit candidates, advised on (to the point of sometimes dictating) Quebec strategy and tactics. Still, when the 2011 election arrived, no one expected an orange wave in Quebec – a few ripples maybe, but not a massive wave.

To other Canadians, Quebeckers seem politically fickle. Why do they do what they do, English-Canadians ask? In fact, Quebeckers took their time in the 2011 election and made a rational choice by a process of elimination.

The Liberals still lived under the shadow of the “sponsorship scandal,” offered Mr. Ignatieff as leader and had a very weak organization. Moreover, the party had been in slow decline in Quebec since the early 1980s. The Conservatives were led by Mr. Harper, who struck many Quebeckers as Mr. Guns, Mr. Oil, Mr. Do Nothing on Climate Change, Mr. Guy from Somewhere Else. The Bloc had been around for more than a decade, ever since the demise of the Meech Lake Accord. Separatism wasn’t on the horizon, so what was the point of the BQ? Why not the NDP, with that nice, smiling, reasonably bilingual leader Jack Layton, le bon Jack as he came to be called?

When he died in August of 2011, just three months after the federal election, and Mr. Mulcair replaced him the following March, the NDP seemed set to establish long-term dominance in Quebec. But there was always something inherently unstable about the party’s standing. It had won the 2011 election more by a process of elimination and the sudden popularity of a leader. Early in the 2015 campaign, Quebec pollster Jean-Marc Léger analyzed the party’s challenge in the province: “The NDP vote is extremely fragile. If Thomas Mulcair isn’t at the top of his game in debates, the vote could completely collapse. It remains a vote by elimination. We don’t like the other parties, so we take refuge in the NDP. That’s why it is the most fragile vote in Quebec.”

So it proved to be. Mr. Mulcair did acceptably in French-language debates, but he did not win them. He criticized forcing women who wish to wear the niqab to remove it during citizenship ceremonies – in the face of overwhelming support for the idea from Quebeckers, who were egged on by the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives.

For the Harper party, the niqab was a perfect wedge issue, and the NDP got wedged on the intellectually and morally correct but politically dangerous side of it. Taking that side spoke to Mr. Mulcair as a man of principle, the one his supporters saw in his decision on Mont Orford all those years ago. Anticipating an ethnocentric backlash in Quebec (and elsewhere), Mr. Mulcair could have slithered around the niqab issue. Instead, at political cost to the party, he took the right position, square up.


Outflanked on the left

When Canadians wake up in the morning, more of them identify themselves as Conservatives or Liberals than New Democrats. That is a fact of political life unaltered by the NDP’s surprise finish in the 2011 election. To win a national election with only NDP identifiers is impossible.

The party therefore faces a choice: Convince unaffiliated voters and supporters of other parties of the wisdom of NDP policies and/or the superiority of the party leader; or adjust the party’s platform and rhetoric to make the switch easier. Because people fundamentally vote for which party best reflects their values and interests. The vast majority do not study platforms; they vote on instinct, the personality of the leader and a broad sense of who is most like them.

Mr. Mulcair’s NDP chose the route of adjusting. It would be wrong to say he started the change. Jack Layton did that. Becoming the Official Opposition also pushed the party toward greater pragmatism, because the political world looks quite different one step removed from power than from the benches of the third or fourth party in the Commons.

When Mr. Layton and his team put together the party’s 2011 platform, the NDP was the fourth party. As such, it could promise just about anything, and it did. The platform was stuffed with billions and billions of dollars of spending commitments but not one specific mention of where it would get the money. It said the NDP would balance the budget in four years (the federal government had gone deeply into deficit after the 2008-09 recession) but outlined nothing about how balance might he achieved. It was, in short, a typical platform for a party nowhere near power.

Run the reel forward to 2015. Now the NDP was the Official Opposition. It believed that power might be at hand. It knew from past experiences in provincial politics that parties of the right will attack New Democrats as “tax-and-spenders,” “tax-lovers” without business or managerial experience, in cahoots with public-sector unions. Not only had Mr. Mulcair believed in fiscal prudence from his earliest years in Quebec politics, and not only had he won the leadership without promising to raise personal income taxes, political strategy suggested that the NDP, on the cusp of power, had to protect itself against anticipated Conservative and Liberal charges about fiscal irresponsibility.

The party fiscal framework therefore called for a balanced budget; indeed, small surpluses for four years. The federal NDP had always been deeply Keynesian, or at least faux Keynesian, since it wanted to stimulate the economy with deficits (while promising eventual surpluses) almost all the time. In 2015, under Mr. Mulcair, the NDP tried to make a virtue of reducing government debt. Mr. Mulcair assailed the Conservatives for years of deficits and the Liberals for proposing to run deficits. He often harkened back to Tommy Douglas who, as Saskatchewan’s CCF premier in the 1940s and 1950s, balanced budgets while expanding or introducing social programs such as public health care. Mr. Mulcair’s core pitch was straightforward: The NDP could be socially progressive and fiscally responsible. The balance seemed politically saleable. It would entice and reassure simultaneously – but could it work?

“That’s an interesting one,” said Jim Stanford, an economist at the trade union Unifor. “If we are, in fact, in a sustained downturn, it’s going to be difficult for a government to balance the budget. … I suspect that’s driven more by politics than economics. He’s obviously trying to send a signal that NDP economic policy will be serious and responsible.”

The NDP found itself outflanked on its political left by the Liberals, who promised to run deficits for three years, a promise that gave them latitude to propose even more spending than the NDP. The manoeuvre spoke to the Liberals’ protean quality, their ability to shift policies, turn themselves inside out and abandon previous positions, while stating with a straight face that they had always been consistent. This outflanking was exactly the political strategy successfully pursued by Ontario’s Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne against the NDP – the difference being that she proposed big spending while Ontario had a huge deficit and growing debt, whereas the federal government enjoys a balanced budget and a declining debt-to-GDP ratio.

The use of the Wynne political strategy left Mr. Mulcair and the NDP in the awkward positon of critiquing another party for proposing the general fiscal approach that the NDP had historically favoured. Not surprisingly, in mid-campaign the NDP began bleeding centre-left support to the Liberals. The more the NDP insisted on the virtues of a balanced budget, the more it highlighted the Conservatives’ message that balancing the budget was of cardinal importance.

With polls showing the party slipping badly, Mr. Mulcair came out swinging against the Trans-Pacific Partnership this week. He and senior New Democrats had been trying to nudge the party toward more acceptance of trade deals, which have become part of the globalized world. In opposing the TPP and making common cause with some auto manufacturers, auto unions and supply-managed farmers, Mr. Mulcair reverted to traditional NDP protectionism to shore up his left flank. Modernizing the party’s attitude toward liberalized trade has therefore been abandoned as Mr. Mulcair played to his party’s base.

When Canadians wake up in the morning, more of them identify themselves as Conservatives or Liberals than New Democrats. The party therefore faces a choice: persuade undecided voters of the wisdom of NDP policies, or adjust the party’s platform to attract them. Mr. Mulcair’s NDP has chosen the latter.


Great expectations and principled stands

Former prime minister Joe Clark once remarked privately that no one – not even someone like him, who had been on campaigns as an adviser – could possibly understand the strain of a national campaign on a party leader until he had undertaken one. The incessant media scrutiny. The travel and the time zones. The constant need to be at the top of your game. The pressure of televised debates. The chance of a costly mistake or a remark gone wrong. The interrupted sleep. The fatigue.

When Mr. Clark ran, elections were eight weeks long. Mr. Harper, knowing his party had more money, deliberately made the 2015 campaign three months, pressing as always his political advantage. To this point in the campaign, despite Mr. Clark’s telling reminders of the hazards inspired by fatigue and chance, Mr. Mulcair has campaigned well, in this, his first national test as leader.

He has not made serious mistakes. If he has, these were made before the campaign began – in shaping the strategic fiscal message of the NDP. He stood on the principled side of the toxic niqab issue. Pericles he will never be, nor even Justin Trudeau born alight on airy phrases. But then Stephen Harper did not become prime minister because of any speeches he ever gave that would be remembered after delivery.

Mr. Mulcair adjusted the NDP so that it could move across the Commons aisle. He tried to prepare the party and himself for power. For the first time, therefore, a leader of the NDP will accordingly be judged by these high expectations. Such a judgment might be unfair, because the party has come a very long way in a short period of time, for which Mr. Mulcair deserves his measure of credit. He wanted, and the party expected, at least to lead a minority government. High expectations inspire. They can also deceive and deflate.

Jeffrey Simpson is The Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist.

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