National Column: Mulcair feels the pinch in Quebec

Even as NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair launches a bid for a mandate to lead the party for another four years and a second election campaign, his Quebec base is slipping from under him.

If Mulcair relinquished his Outremont seat tomorrow, the NDP would be hard-pressed to hold the Montreal riding against a born-again Liberal party.

The same is true of many of the other NDP seats in Quebec.

It is no accident that most of the New Democrats who survived the last election had higher profiles than the rest of the Quebec pack. That and a four-way split in the vote rather than the party label earned 16 of them a ticket to the new Parliament.

To be fair, none of Mulcair’s 2012 leadership challengers would have done as well in Quebec last fall.

But are those 16 seats reason enough to believe Mulcair remains the best choice to lead the NDP to a stronger outcome in Quebec and across Canada in four years’ time?

As things stand today the evidence is, at best, inconclusive.

At this juncture, Mulcair’s case for staying on seems to boil down to two basic arguments, neither of which is compelling.

The first is his Quebec connection and experience. But as the result of the election demonstrated, those assets are overrated. Post-election, Mulcair remains a well-respected figure in Quebec. But then, so was Gilles Duceppe and look where that got the former Bloc Quebecois leader last October.

For all of Mulcair’s strengths, the NDP – on his watch – has remained a bit player in his home province.

Justin Trudeau’s current post-election honeymoon is an aggravating factor but not the root cause of the situation.

The party’s self-imposed discretion in the face of most of the debates that have been central to Quebec politics over the past five years is largely responsible for its low profile.

Under Mulcair, the NDP steered clear of the 2012 Maple Spring and the social unrest that attended it.

The party kept as much distance as possible from the debate over the Parti Quebecois’ controversial secularism charter.

The New Democrats contributed little to the prolonged conversation that led to the introduction of medically assisted suicide in the province’s end-of-life care protocol, and it remained on the sidelines of the pipeline issue.

Even as the party was making a national child-care plan modelled on the Quebec example a central plank of its federal platform, it looked the other way as Philippe Couillard’s government clipped the wings of the popular program.

Until last fall, the sense of many Quebec voters that they needed a foil against a distrusted Conservative government kept Mulcair on the province’s radar. With that perceived threat out of the way, the party has yet to articulate a raison d’Ítre persuasive enough to sustain the interest of an easily distracted audience. And that particular problem is not Quebec-specific.

The other often-heard argument for keeping Mulcair at the helm is that there is no obvious contender for the succession. But if that is true then it amounts to a devastating judgment on the next generation of New Democrats.

Having watched the likes of former MP Megan Leslie – to name just one New Democrat – in action, I find it hard to believe that someone like her would not be up to the task of leading the party to renewal.

At the end of the day, most New Democrats are probably not angry enough at Mulcair for losing the election to engage in the divisive battle of wills required to push a leader out the door. (Things would have been different if Mulcair had lost to Stephen Harper.)

But if the past is any indication there is no direct correlation between wrestling a vote of confidence on a convention floor and leading a party to a stellar performance in a general election.

Mulcair always fit the frame of potential prime minister better than that of NDP leader.

With that frame now twice removed from the party; with a federal government in place that many New Democrats are comfortable with, he has yet to articulate a rationale other than his own preference for staying on.

His first media appearance of the new year on Monday did little to advance that objective.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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