National Column: Dream replacements for Mulcair are vanishing

by Chantal Hébert

The federal New Democrats who showed Thomas Mulcair the door last April must have had various dream candidates in mind to replace him.

Almost two months later, most of those presumed successors have vanished into thin air.

On Friday, MP Nathan Cullen, who finished in third place against Mulcair in 2012 and was widely considered the best positioned to win the succession, became the latest potential candidate to pull his name off the list.

Brian Topp, the veteran party strategist who ran second in that last federal race, had already declined the opportunity to try again.

Former Halifax MP Megan Leslie, a popular choice among New Democrats, made it clear within days of the convention that she was done with politics for the foreseeable future.

What they all have in common is their sense that – at this juncture – their energies are better spent on battles other than that of keeping the third-place federal NDP afloat.

Topp serves as chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. His mission is to ensure the province’s first NDP government does not become its last for decades.

Leslie toils on the environmental front in a senior position with WWF-Canada. She will have a front-row seat on the upcoming national discussion as how best to offset climate change and on the Liberal efforts to come up with more proactive policies.

Cullen says he wants to focus on the upcoming federal debate over electoral reform. The NDP has long coveted a change to a more proportional voting system. Justin Trudeau’s promise to change the system in time for the next federal election offers the New Democrats their best shot ever at advancing that goal.

But other sirens may also be serenading Cullen. British Columbia will be going to the polls next spring, offering the NDP an opportunity to end a 16-year Liberal reign. Many in Cullen’s home province would have him join the next big electoral battle on the New Democrat horizon. Although he says he is not contemplating a move to provincial politics, they believe it is not his last word on the matter.

The divisions on exhibit at the NDP convention do not, on their own, account for the fact that so few seem to burn with the desire to lead the party.

The impetus for a strong NDP opposition in the Commons has declined precipitously since Justin Trudeau replaced Stephen Harper as prime minister.

Cullen himself spent the last NDP leadership campaign advocating a formal alliance of sorts with the Liberals, and found substantial support for the idea. It is understandable that he would feel there are more productive ways to advance his ideals than to lead an all-out partisan fight against the Trudeau Liberals.

Still, a leader for the federal New Democrats must be found and the list of qualified prospects is growing shorter.

For now, many will turn to Peter Julian. The British Columbia MP is the party’s current house leader. Fluently bilingual, he is streetwise in Quebec. He went to university in French in Montreal.

As past executive director of the Council of Canadians, Julian has ties to the activist base of the NDP. He would be acceptable to many of the party’s conflicted constituencies.

And what of activist Avi Lewis? He, too, is otherwise occupied but, in any event, he also lacks some essential qualifications for a federal leadership role.

As part of his campaign to promote the LEAP manifesto at the April convention, Lewis gave almost as many media interviews as Mulcair. But when Radio-Canada invited him to discuss the document and the major restructuring of the Canadian economy it advocates, he declined for lack of proficiency in French.

Unless he has since signed up for a crash course in Canada’s other official language, those who continue to press Lewis to bid for Mulcair’s succession should move on to more viable candidates.

The NDP, like Harper’s Conservatives, has worked too hard to establish a presence in Quebec to put it all on the line by electing a leader who cannot communicate in the language of the province’s majority.

The day French-speaking voters in this country support a party whose leader needs an interpreter to speak to them is the day when non-francophone voters across Canada embrace a candidate for prime minister who does not speak English.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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