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NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks with the media about his visit to the oilsands following party caucus meetings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday May 30, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Alberta is not Nigeria, and New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair said one thing on that subject in Ottawa and another this week on a visit to Alberta. It may have been good politics, but it's not the mark of a leader with aspirations to be prime minister.

Mr. Mulcair's explanation for why Canada's manufacturing sector is in trouble is simplistic (Canada has "Dutch disease"), features a bogeyman (perhaps more than one) and a victim or two. But Mr. Mulcair is a canny politician. He vowed to steer away from socialist bromides and he has. He said Thursday after a tour of the Alberta oil sands that he is impressed by their massive scope. He favours development of the resource – in a sustainable way. His attack on the oil sands in the House of Commons this spring ("their model for development is Nigeria") and on government for failing to protect the environment, and on all of them together for sending the Canadian dollar to new heights, thus undermining the country's exporters, gives voters an enemy to detest without offering a traditional socialist explanation.

Although Alberta has a ways to go in improving environmental monitoring, it does not allow unlimited dumping of pollution into air, water and land, as Mr. Mulcair claimed without evidence. As for Dutch Disease, in which high oil prices drive the dollar higher, harming exporters, Canada has a mild case at worst, according to the non-aligned Institute for Research in Public Policy. (The IRPP said that 25 of 80 manufacturing sectors have been harmed by the high dollar.)

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Mr. Mulcair seems to long for a golden age of manufacturing and a low dollar, but his longing won't take Canada anywhere. Not only the dollar but Asian competition has inflicted damage on Canadian exporters. Mr. Mulcair is right that the environment needs to be respected; but his divisive, over-the-top approach isn't helpful.

While he was in Alberta Mr. Mulcair softened his comments, insisting that his quarrel is not with area politicians but with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom he accused of not enforcing national environmental laws that protect water and wildlife. What he didn't say clearly is that the oil boom in Alberta is a revenue windfall for Alberta and Ottawa and offers a huge opportunity to the rest of Canada, large companies and small, to provide goods and services. That boom, and the oil sands in particular, may make a convenient political target, but it's good for Canada.

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