“Strength of Conviction”? Popping the NDP’s bubble

A few days ago, amidst a slew of polls showing the NDP pulling into a three-way tie nationally with the Libs and the HarperCons, there was a wave of generically interchangeable op-ed pieces from knowledgeable old political hacks opining that Thomas Mulcair’s party was poised to win this fall’s election.

The Star’s Tim Harper opined that “Thomas Mulcair [is] emerging as the real agent of change”, arguing that the Trudeau Liberals have proven too wishy-washy to take on the polarizing HarperCons, and that this year’s election could be a “change” election, which is pundit-speak for “people are sick of Stephen Harper”.

Lawrence Martin over at the Globe, under the headline “Mulcair or Trudeau: One must offer real change”, manages to say a lot without actually stating much about what he thinks will happen. After all the “on-the-one-hand,-but-on-the-other-hand”ing, he seems to ever so slightly imply that maybe this time the NDP might have some chance – which for the Globe is I suppose a pretty big deal.

Meanwhile, over at the Ottawa Citizen, Andrew Cohen sees the NDP making gains in the battle for the anyone-but-Harper crowd, which he labels “progressive voters”, a group he generously includes Red Tories in. (Are there any of those left?) He slams Trudeau as a “retail politician,” and says of the NDP leader, “Mulcair may not be cuddly but he is effective in Parliament. His principled critique of the anti-terrorism bill – admired by many Liberals – is one reason that public support for the bill has fallen sharply.”

Even Michael Den Tandt over at the National Post can see which way the wind is blowing. Rather than bigging up Mulcair, Den Tandt nervously frets over Justin Trudeau’s lacklustre performance and offers him what I’m sure is well-intentioned advice: speak “off-the-cuff”. Seriously, he says “off-the-cuff” three times, comparing Mulcair’s frequent and successful off-the-cuffedness with Trudeau’s reticence in the off-the-cuff-ing department. Let Trudeau be Trudeau, he begs, comparing poor Justin to Jean Chretien – or else we might wind up with scrum-friendly Tom!

It’s almost become an article among faith among senior political correspondents that Harper’s days are numbered. Indeed, it seems as though the national press corps has turned on Harper, right down to the Sun. There’s not a favourable word for the man to be found, not a supporter of his policies to be quoted. When the press turns on you, the narrative of your downfall can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a lack of positive coverage makes you look like a poor leader, worsening people’s perceptions of you, leading to more slippage in the polls, leading to more articles about how poorly you’re doing, etc.

(This is, remember, the press corp which overwhelmingly endorsed the HarperCons in 2011.)

And Mulcair, amazingly, seems to be emerging as the man the press have picked to build up. Ol’ Tom is eager to fill the roll, too – just today he announced the release date for his forthcoming memoir, “Strength of Conviction.” Set to come out August 1, just a few months before the election, it’ll be competing in the propaganda-disguised-as-Canadian-political-memoir category with a biography of Stephen Harper due out in September.

Now, the title is almost laughably anodyne – the Post mocked it by creating a political memoir name generator (mine was Moments of Gratuitous Pride) – but the sentiment it seems to be gesturing at is that of principle. It implies that Mulcair (and by extension the NDP) act on their beliefs and principles and convictions, and that this is what defines them (as opposed to, say, their opponents).

So don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be upset if the NDP won the election this fall. But I just wanted to take this opportunity to point out that this narrative is bullshit.

Let’s take a look at Cohen’s example above – how Mulcair’s “principled critique” of Bill C-51 helped create public opposition to the bill.

In actual fact, he’s got it exactly backwards. Mulcair’s (and the NDP’s) opposition to Bill C-51 was late out of the gate – they hesitated and made non-committal statements for several days after the bill first came out, and then tentatively settled on a cautious opposition which was mostly focussed on critiquing the lack of parliamentary oversight in the bill.

As public opposition to the bill mounted, led by activist groups and alternative media, as well as an increasingly alarmed mainstream press, Mulcair’s criticisms became more confident and more sweeping.

Finally, after the bill’s passage, when opinion polls were consistently showing a majority of the public was opposed to the measure, the NDP publicly committed to repeal C-51 if elected. Previously, Mulcair had made vague and contradictory comments about wanting to fix the bill if the NDP was elected, leading many to say that there wasn’t much practical difference between Trudeau’s support-then-amend position.

Does that sound like principled opposition? Or the strength of conviction?

The NDP got the policy right in the end, and maybe it was even the policy they wanted to go for at the outset. But they were afraid of being painted as soft on terror, and so they hedged their bets – as did the Trudeau Liberals, although they took it to a greater extreme.

The New Democrats are not some magical exception to the pressures of politics. Our system isn’t compatible with principle and strength of conviction. That’s the lesson of the NDP in provinces across Canada – firmly principled and left-leaning when in opposition, when they have nothing to lose and the admiration of voters to gain, and pragmatic and centrist when in power.

Of the three options that we’ve been offered, I’d rather Mulcair than Harper or Trudeau. But I don’t hold out hope that he’ll be a radically different politician – I don’t think that he could be, given the way our political system is structured. I’d settle for marginally better at this point, to be honest – but I don’t want to have any illusions about that Mulcair and the NDP will have the strength of conviction for any longer than it’s politically convenient.

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