National Column: What the NDP can learn from its own mistakes

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

We’ve been here before.

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when the NDP led the national polls, it appeared electoral revolution was at hand and the leader of the day, Ed Broadbent, was being spoken of as the next prime minister.

In 1988, as today, the country seemed headed for a historically close three-party race.

It never happened.

Broadbent, of course, proved to be the country’s great polling parking lot, the vessel for pre-election discontent. A 44-per-cent standing in the polls, stunning news that led national newscasts and newspapers, melted away in what became a historic two-party battle over an issue that comes along perhaps once in a generation. The NDP was marginalized and its design on government was nothing more than a mirage.

Voters dated Broadbent but married Brian Mulroney. Again.

Is there reason to believe that 2015 will be different for Tom Mulcair and a caucus that includes MPs not even born during the great free trade election?

As the party prepared for broadcast a pre-election ad that essentially introduces their leader to Canadian voters and an NDP government was being sworn in in Alberta, there is reason to believe 1988 was just a historical anomaly with few lessons to be learned 27 years later. But there are also historical precedents that deserve the party’s attention.

At one point, riding high, Broadbent – perhaps fatally – mused about displacing the Liberals in a two-party system in Canada.

Mulcair, whose contempt for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is palpable, must resist such hubris. But the real problem for the NDP in the 1988 election was that they weren’t players in what became the defining issue, allowing John Turner and his Liberals to become the true opposition to Mulroney’s free trade deal with the United States.

There appears to be no such defining issue on the horizon this autumn.

Stephen Harper has already declared he believes ballots will be cast on the economy and security.

The economy has traditionally been the New Democrats’ soft spot, but Mulcair has been a moderate on that front. He would cancel the Conservative income-splitting plan and use that money for a national daycare plan.

He would raise corporate taxes, reduce small business taxes, but not raise personal income taxes.

He would raise the minimum wage for federal workers to $15 per hour and would cancel Conservative plans to raise the Old Age Security eligibility to age 67 from 65.

Security and the party’s repudiation of the anti-terrorism bill is a strength.

Broadbent went to the polls in 1988 with a band of 30 incumbents. Mulcair heads to the polls as opposition leader with a caucus of 96 and the largest number of incumbents the party has ever had.

Broadbent teased without a single MP from Quebec. Mulcair counts his home province as his base and a poll published last week shows he is in little danger of losing that foundation.

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Surveying the horizon, the one outstanding issue that is certain to erupt again is in the NDP’s sweet spot.

The revelations from the Mike Duffy trial are sure to become more damaging for Harper and an audit of Senate spending expected next month will merely heap more dirt on a discredited institution.

The Senate is a winner for the NDP, the only party seeking power that has never made a Senate appointment.

The Conservative plan to reshape the national debates also probably helps Mulcair. He is anxious to debate Harper as often and on as many different issues as possible and New Democrats appear to be working with the Conservatives to try to squeeze Trudeau.

The NDP strength does appear, as pollster Frank Graves put it, the new normal, not ephemeral as Broadbent’s was.

But a three-way race is also the new normal and Mulcair is still the least known to the public of the three main federal leaders.

Trudeau and his Liberals aren’t going away. In fact, this dip in fortunes comes at a good time for the party because they have time to reset, fill out a platform and get Trudeau back on his game.

Harper and his Conservatives have deep pockets and the power of incumbency. They are fanning out across the country spending money to shore up weak spots and government cheques are destined for mailboxes this summer.

When the Commons returns Monday for the last sprint before the election season, Mulcair will be a government target. For the first time in this majority term, Harper now has to fight rivals on two fronts.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright: 2015
Torstar Syndication Services

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