Thomas Mulcair is desperately trying to regain momentum and he's seizing an issue dear to the old NDP: the knee-jerk protectionist reaction against free trade. To paraphrase the NDP Leader, who has said Conservative Leader Stephen Harper "never met a war he didn't like," the NDP never saw a free-trade deal it didn't hate.
In 1988, the NDP (alongside the John Turner Liberals) launched an emotional crusade against the Canada-United States free-trade deal, predicting doom and gloom and the loss of the Canadian way of life. Even though that didn't happen, the NDP similarly opposed enlarging the pact to include Mexico and remains reluctant about the trade deal with the European Union.
So last weekend, Mr. Mulcair frantically toured farms in Quebec and Ontario, hoping to capitalize on the egg and milk producers' worries about the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. But Ottawa has promised them billions in compensation for the very slight losses they might encounter. Besides, Quebec voters are long-time supporters of free trade. Still, Mr. Mulcair trumpeted, before even knowing what was in the TPP, that he wouldn't ratify it if he came to power. Withdrawing from a free-trade zone that goes from Chile to Japan for the sake of the archaic system of supply management of dairy and poultry products? This is irresponsible at best, foolish at worst.
Has the NDP really changed? Maybe not. Its naive brand of pacifism echoes the 1960s "ban the bomb" movement. Faced with the militant Islamist threat, it proposes "peace missions" rather than military action, a noble goal, but where exactly should Canada send those sweet humanitarians? To Libya? Afghanistan? Sudan? Syria?
Under Mr. Mulcair, the NDP repositioned itself toward the centre, a wise move, considering its reputation as a big-spender party filled with radicals of various stripes. But the unexpected conversion of the Liberals to Keynesianism made it look like the party of change, attracting left-leaning voters and leaving the NDP with a demoralized base.
In Quebec, the NDP is losing steam. While the Conservatives are poised to make a few gains in the Quebec City area, the Bloc Québécois has mounted a formidable campaign against the NDP, and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe dominated the two French-language television debates, thanks in part to his stand on the niqab and the military mission against Islamic State, two positions he has in common with Mr. Harper. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau gave a good performance in last week's French debate. Buoyed by the national opinion polls, he was more articulate in French than previously, and looked calm and self-assured, a sharp contrast with Mr. Mulcair, who was overly aggressive.
The NDP has shallow roots in the province, despite its 54-strong Quebec caucus, and it doesn't help that its MPs have been largely invisible since their 2011 surprise win. Nobody knows exactly what the Quebec NDP really stands for. Even Mr. Mulcair's image is somewhat muddled. Some see him as an opportunist because of his successive and contradictory political affiliations. He's also accused of double talk, especially on the unity file and the Energy East pipeline.
With the Liberals tracking ahead of the NDP nationally, part of the Quebec anti-Harper vote may go to the Liberals. And many nationalists may return to the familiar niche of the Bloc Québécois.