National Column: NDP strife has no upside

by Chantal Hébert

The storm over the Liberal handling of a controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia is a gift to an NDP caucus still reeling from the summary execution of its leader at the hands of party members.

It is also confirmation that fate does not always smile on politicians in a timely fashion.

For months, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been implying that the controversial $15-billion sale of armoured vehicles to the Saudis was a done Conservative deal he could not renege on.

Regardless of Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, regardless of a recent European Union arms embargo on that country, Trudeau argued he was bound to honour the contract negotiated by his predecessor. As it turns out, until late last week, the government had yet to give the sale the final approval.

Would outgoing NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have fared better at the weekend’s convention if discrepancies in the Liberal narrative on an issue close to the hearts of most New Democrats had come to light before the confidence vote in his leadership? That’s hard to say.

But Mulcair could only have benefited from having had something more solid to sink his teeth into in the lead-up to that vote than the wedding cake crumbs of a honeymooning Liberal government.

His case for staying undeniably suffered from the absence of a larger-than-life ideological foe in power in Ottawa. Most New Democrats saw the Conservative agenda as a critical threat to their collective values. Stephen Harper’s defeat at the hands of the Liberals added impetus to their return to their existential quarrels.

The irony is that an NDP in relative turmoil is not necessarily good news for the Trudeau government.

For one, with Mulcair staying on until his successor is chosen, the Liberals should forget about getting a free ride from the NDP in the House of Commons. They certainly have not been getting an easy ride from the Conservatives under the interim leadership of Rona Ambrose.

If he can live with his diminished status, Mulcair should be no less able to hold the fort for the NDP in the Commons for one to two years than Bob Rae was for the Liberals in the long lead-up to Trudeau’s selection as leader.

By the same token, the Liberals should find no cause to rejoice at the notion that their NDP rivals could turn their guns on pipelines in general and the TransCanada’s Energy East project in particular.

The fact that the New Democrats have so far kept their powder dry on the issue has bought the Liberals a lot of cover as they tried to advance a pro-pipeline agenda.

That restraint has served not only the interests of Alberta’s NDP government. A more aggressive New Democrat take on pipelines could make life more difficult for its political advocates, especially in Quebec.

According to many past and present Quebec NDP MPs, the absence of a firm anti-Energy East stance came second only to the party’s opposition to a niqab ban in the list of the grievances they heard about on the doorsteps last fall.

Since then, the TransCanada project has risen on the province’s radar while the fortunes of the ruling Quebec Liberals have declined among francophone voters.

That is not a promising combination for the project.

As NDP leader, Mulcair implemented a virtual pact of non-aggression toward his former provincial party.

He watched the social protests that attended the end of Jean Charest’s last mandate from the sidelines. He has had little to say about the austerity measures implemented by Philippe Couillard’s government – with attending cuts to the province’s social services.

Mulcair invoked the need to marshal all resources on the federal election front to put the creation of a Quebec New Democrat party on the back burner. That may now be about to change. The advent of a new federalist centre-left provincial party could sap support from the Quebec
Liberals and help clear the way for the election of a less federalist-friendly government in two years.

Couillard and Trudeau will come to miss having a former Quebec Liberal at the helm of the NDP.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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