He was fresh from crippling betrayal by his party at a weekend convention in Edmonton. Yet Mulcair was still at his finest going after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over an incipient “scandal” around Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s attendance at the fundraiser of a powerful Toronto law firm. Never one to kick once when two or three openings arise, Mulcair took shots as well at Finance Minister Bill Morneau and National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier.
“We have a Minister of Justice attending a sketchy fundraiser, a Minister of Finance with companies registered in tax havens like the Bahamas, and a Minister of National Revenue who is defending sweetheart deals for millionaire tax cheats,” Mulcair told the Commons.
“The Liberals swore they would be different, but they keep finding novel ways of being the Liberals.”
It was vintage Mulcair in the parliamentary style that gave such hope to NDP stalwarts before the 2015 federal election. It was the style that fuelled serious expectation during the election lead-up that Mulcair could make history by becoming Canada’s first New Democrat prime minister.
If a week is a lifetime in politics, the weekend in Edmonton took the life out of any hope that the Outremont MP can continue to lead the party, never mind one day occupy the government benches. Mulcair was, of course, unable to raise even 50 percent support among convention delegates for his leadership.
Even that old rhinoceros-skinned pol, Jean Chrétien, who happened to be in the Parliament buildings Monday, winced at such savaging of an incumbent leader.
“It’s very sad for him,” the former Liberal prime minister said with characteristic bluntness outside the Commons. “That’s political life. I was lucky – we (always) won. But it’s not everyone who can win.”
Embedded in Chrétien’s remark was the critical question: was Mulcair ever someone who could win? Part of the narrative surrounding the NDP’s relapse from Official Opposition to third party status was that he had the misfortune to be saddled with over-enthusiastic expectations against a Liberal opponent, Justin Trudeau, whom everyone underestimated. There’s obvious truth there. It might not be the whole truth.
A moment that occurred six months before the 2015 election was called shows why. My Cardus colleague Ray Pennings was interviewing two men with deep connections to the strategic inner workings of the Conservative party and the Harper government. He asked them how, with an election looming, the Tories planned to counter the strengths of the Leader of the Opposition.
Both gave fascinating insights, perhaps aided by the off-the-record nature of the discussion, into the way the Conservatives had done detailed analysis of the voter appeal of former Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. The tactical next step was development of messaging that directly highlighted the weaknesses of Dion and Ignatieff in relation to their established appeal. The problem with Justin Trudeau, both men said candidly, was that no one could pinpoint why he appealed to Canadians.
“That’s very interesting,” Ray Pennings said. “It’s even more interesting because I asked you about the Leader of the Opposition, who is Thomas Mulcair, and you answered about Justin Trudeau, who is the leader of the third party in the House of Commons.”
A year later, watching third party leader Mulcair on the attack across the floor in the Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave that Trudeauesque corners-of-the-lips twitch that is just close enough to a smile to be utterly derisive.
Unlike his father, who baffled Canadians with the mystery of overpowering intellect, Justin Trudeau has risen to where he is through masterful deployment of being underestimated. His NDP opponent across the floor, by contrast, marches forward with full frontal pride and an armoured-plated political hide. Both, in his own way and by virtue of position held, ranks as the best of the current crowd of political performers.
But Mulcair, alas, bore a fatal wound long before the knives came out in Edmonton. It is this: even when he’s been the topic of conversation, no one has really known who he is. It’s not, as Jean Chrétien said in his inimitable way, everyone who can win. But no one can win whom everyone thinks is someone else.
Peter Stockland is a senior fellow with Cardus, and publisher of Convivium magazine.