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Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Team NDP has a big hole to fill Add to ...

Wanted: A candidate with a strong background in economics, preferably Bay Street experience. Apply to the New Democratic Party immediately. You could be Canada’s next Minister of Finance.

With the election little more than three months away, the New Democrats, suddenly a contender to form the next government, are in a bit of a jam. They have no one with the right credentials for the finance post, the most important job in cabinet. Since the party has at times been saddled with a red-ink reputation, it could well be a focal point of criticism in the campaign.

The Dippers realize it and so the hunt is on for the right candidate. “We are actively looking,” a senior strategist for the party said in an interview, acknowledging it is a top priority. But as the strategist noted, there isn’t much time. For the 338 electoral districts, the New Democrats have already nominated about 250 candidates. Many of the remaining vacancies are hopeless causes. When you sign up, you’re handed a noose.

Months ago when team orange wasn’t viewed as a potential winner, finding a future finance minister wasn’t a major concern. The Liberals meanwhile went out and recruited Bill Morneau, a former chair of the C.D. Howe Institute with a business background to run for them.

The NDP is more of a natural habitat for blue-collar grunts than the Bay Street set. But given its new stature, organizers are still hopeful someone of high reputation will come forward. Former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge recently signed on as an adviser to help the new NDP government in Alberta. Though a background in high finance is not absolutely mandatory for the finance position, the NDP’s stock would shoot up with someone of similar stature.

The party’s current finance critic is Nathan Cullen, a sharp-witted retail politician with some experience in economic community development projects but not a strong financial pedigree. In that post before him was Peggy Nash. Her heavy leftist lean and labour-union background do not make her a good fit for finance. A Quebec MP, Guy Caron, has credentials as an economist but his experience as such is with a labour union. A rising star in the party is Victoria MP and Harvard law graduate Murray Rankin. He has served as national revenue critic and as a member of the standing committee on finance, but his specialty is environmental law.

Never having been in government in Ottawa, the NDP is untested as a financial manager. The party likes to boast that its provincial governments have had a good record at keeping budgets in the black. But in Manitoba, where the party is in power, debt is headed for a historic high. In Ontario, an image problem persists because the New Democratic government of the early 1990s in that province ran up big debts while facing a deep recession.

In Ontario, the NDP still has about twenty riding nominations to be filled. Some of them are attractive, the party maintains, especially given the NDP’s recent rise in the polls.

In addition to new recruit Morneau, who faces a tough test in Toronto Centre against NDPer Linda McQuaig, the Liberals have some economic heft in their caucus. There’s former finance minister Ralph Goodale, economist John McCallum and others who could fill finance-related portfolios such as Scott Brison and Chrystia Freeland.

The governing Conservatives are hardly over-stocked with economic talent. Finance Minister Joe Oliver is 75 but running again. Whether he would retain the role is open to question. Pitbull Pierre Poilievre has sometimes stood in his place to answer questions in the Commons. That has to be a stiff blow to Mr. Oliver’s pride.

The Conservatives have become somewhat vulnerable on the economy owing to the oil-price plunge, the dollar drop and talk of the country being on the borderline of another recession.

But it will be harder for Tom Mulcair to score points against them if he cannot field a team with impressive economic cred.

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