New Democrats turned to Tom Mulcair because they could see power finally visible over the next hill. He was the man who could take them there.
Jack Layton had left the party of conscience with the chance to govern, but the last step would be gargantuan.
Now, as Mulcair closes in on three years as Opposition leader, you can hear whispers from within the party comparing him unfavourably to the late party icon.
Unfair? Of course.
Layton had to deal with Michael Ignatieff, not Justin Trudeau.
No one knew whether Layton would be able to parlay a stunning electoral breakthrough in 2011 into something bigger, or be forced to try, as Mulcair has, to push back against a Canadian political system which seems bent on morphing back into a traditional two-party battle.
But the former Quebec provincial minister was handed a historically large caucus – populated by neophytes and accidental MPs mixed with experienced veterans – and told to begin that last step.
Instead, there are days when Mulcair resembles a guy running up an icy hill in flip flops.
He has become one of the most effective Opposition leaders in modern history.
The best since John Diefenbaker, according to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.
That’s high praise, except Mulcair wants to be prime minister.
Survey the NDP landscape across the country. It is littered with dashed hopes and burning disappointment.
It has lost power in Nova Scotia, squandered opportunity in British Columbia, under-performed in Ontario, been shut out in New Brunswick and has devoured its own in Newfoundland and Labrador.
It holds power only in Manitoba, where internal revolt has forced a leadership race.
It lost a crucial seat in Trinity-Spadina and two of its former MPs, Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Olivia Chow, held early leads in mayoral races, in Winnipeg and Toronto respectively, and lost badly in each.
Seven MPs have left since the 2011 vote, through defection, resignation or suspension.
Mulcair is too often ignored by Canadians and the media where Trudeau draws the crowds and website clicks and Mulcair is sometimes referred to as the “Opposition leader,” as if he is a desk.
Whining about media coverage will only hurt him. But the NDP leader does often have a legitimate gripe.
Does he lack warmth? That’s the perception, but, while intense, Mulcair can be engaging in dealing with voters. Does he lack a populist flair? Perhaps, but he is betting substance can trump style.
He is certainly not lacking in gravitas or intelligence, but Mulcair’s biggest flaw may be that he is an old-style politician, more the stolid Stephen Harper, less the flamboyant Trudeau.
But Mulcair cannot become something he is not, so he is laying out policy early, betting depth will eventually trump froth and fireworks. He is trying to establish a right-left race with Harper while the upstart Trudeau gets stuck in the mushy middle.
Mulcair has already proposed a national daycare program, he would raise the minimum wage for federal workers to $15 per hour and he would raise corporate taxes.
He opposes the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, but not the proposed East-West line.
He would reverse the Harper move to push Old Age Security eligibility to 67.
He would meet regularly with provincial premiers and launch an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
He has maintained his strength in Quebec, but has been unable to grow outside that province, and without that growth, the party will regress.
But if you are a New Democrat, here is your hope.
Mulcair is an accomplished campaigner and a superior debater.
The party should be better prepared to wage a campaign than ever before.
The Broadbent Institute has brought key members from Barack Obama’s campaign to Canada to speak, and have sent campaign workers south to learn from digital and social media gurus who were instrumental in the U.S. president’s back-to-back victories.
The party is working hard to educate workers on voter engagement, fundraising appeals and get-out-the-vote efforts.
None of this will work unless Mulcair follows this rule – be bold, resist the urge to play small ball, refuse to worship at the altar of balanced budgets.
Give us real solutions to income inequality and this country’s sorry record on climate change.
Don’t play in the same sandbox as the others.
Layton was barely on the map when the starting gun sounded in 2011.
New Democrats are on the map now, but they will fall off if they timidly work around the edges instead of defiantly offering Canadians real choice.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services