The internal debate over the NDP’s stance on the Conservative anti-terrorism legislation was settled some time before Thomas Mulcair made his decision to oppose Bill C-51 public on Wednesday.
That the die was cast was obvious as of the moment NDP elder statesmen Ed Broadbent and Roy Romanow co-signed an open letter in the Globe and Mail last week calling for the bill to be defeated or withdrawn.
Mulcair, Broadbent and Romanow have locked horns in the past – notably at the time of Jack Layton’s succession – but in this instance any light between their positions would have split the party wide open.
The NDP braved public opinion when it opposed Pierre Trudeau’s decision to suspend civil liberties in Quebec at the time of the 1970 October Crisis. For many of its members – including past and present leaders – supporting Bill C-51 would have been akin to turning their backs on a defining page of party history.
But the NDP’s approval level dropped precipitously over the 1970 episode and polls suggest the party could be courting the same result with its contrary stance on the government’s anti-terrorism agenda.
Given that the Conservative majority will see this bill passed in the end, would it not have been better politics for Mulcair to imitate the Liberals and keep his powder dry, thereby presumably increasing his chances to be in a strong enough position to tone down the legislation after the election?
On substance, there is no doubt that there is a contrary case to be made against C-51. More than a few politically unaligned security and civil liberties experts have argued against its broad definition of terrorism and its silence on an oversight mechanism as muscular as the new powers granted to the security services.
(As an aside, even as former Liberal leader StÈphane Dion was defending his party’s decision to give the bill a pass, his wife, Janice Krieber, who is a security expert, was on Radio-Canada echoing most of the NDP’s concerns.)
But as counterintuitive as it may seem, opposing the bill is also less perilous politically for the NDP than supporting it.
Here is why:
As opposed to the Liberals, the New Democrats cannot argue that non-Conservative voters should coalesce behind them because theirs is the party most likely to beat Harper next fall.
The polls just don’t bear that out and it is unlikely that there will be a sea change in the pattern of voting intentions between now and the beginning of the campaign.
In the circumstances, copying Trudeau’s pliant position on C-51 would only give voters for whom job one next fall would be to oust the Conservatives from power even fewer reasons to stick with the NDP rather than rally behind the more popular Liberals.
The NDP has to guard against bleeding votes to the Green Party, in particular in British Columbia, where leader Elizabeth May – whose seat is on Vancouver Island – is often more of a household name than Mulcair.
May has hit the ground running with the argument that the environmental movement could end up in the crosshairs of the anti-terrorism legislation.
Given past Conservative rhetoric on environmental advocates, it does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to see the pipeline projects as government-designated critical infrastructure and the groups that oppose them as
potential security threats, as broadly defined in the bill.
In provinces such as B.C. and Quebec, where the environmental battle of the hour revolves around pipelines, such concerns resonate.
In Quebec, the anti-terrorism agenda of the government is currently so popular that the Bloc QuÈbÈcois still does not oppose it outright. But if anything the best way to further vindicate the Conservatives’ handling of the issue would be for the NDP to give it its blessing.
It is premature to assume that Mulcair – on his home ground – will not ultimately win the argument against Harper on Bill C-51 but, in any event, it is always dangerous to draw a straight line between a popular but potentially polarizing initiative and the ballot box.
The Parti QuÈbÈcois (along with many observers) did just that last year when it assumed that its secularism charter would be its ticket to a majority government, only to end up wandering in the wilderness in search of a saviour.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2015 Torstar Syndication Services