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Workers put NDP banners as they get ready for their party's leadership convention in Toronto on Thursday, March 22, 2012.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An Environics poll this week showing the federal New Democrats in a tie with the governing Conservatives belies the realistic prospects of the party that last May achieved status as the official Opposition. Despite the breakthrough, the New Democrats are still not a credible alternative for government.

Many of the leadership candidates' policies, from a Crown corporation for generic drugs to an "insanely great CBC," have not been confidence-inspiring. The party remains heavily reliant on labour unions, and more particularly on public-sector unions. That leaves them singularly ill-equipped to confront one of the major issues facing Canada – public-sector spending.

The continuing conflict between the British Columbia government and B.C. teachers is one salient example of the kinds of labour disputes that the federal government may soon be facing. The federal NDP is hardly likely to carry out deficit reduction, as the government attempts to apply necessary fiscal-restraint programs.

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It is hard to see how the NDP will change substantially, given the field of candidates to succeed Jack Layton as leader at Saturday's party convention. When Thomas Mulcair called for some modest reforms of the party, he was attacked by former leader and elder statesman Ed Broadbent, who suggested Mr. Mulcair could not be trusted in part because of his desire to take the party to the "centre" of the political spectrum. Yet much of organized labour has already invested its expectations in Mr. Mulcair.

The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Canada's largest private-sector union, Wayne Hanley, looks forward to the election "of the country's first labour-friendly federal government" with Mr. Mulcair as prime minister. The unions may not like his qualified acceptance of NAFTA, but many of them count on his winning – and, in Mr. Mulcair's own words, to "carry forward our party's legacy" and to "take the next step on labour rights."

Is a "labour-friendly government" really what is needed at a time when public-sector unions have lost touch with the reality of the economy?

A leaderless opposition may seem relatively benign. But after Saturday, with the new leader in place, voters will be looking carefully, even critically, at that individual and the NDP in general. They are likely to be looking for a party that is dedicated to defending the interests of all Canadians, not just those who fit the well-worn NDP euphemism for the union movement, "working Canadians."

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