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Mulcair to take a back seat, pave way for leadership candidates to shine in coming months

Potential leadership contenders are NDP MPs Charlie Angus, Peter Julian, and Ruth Ellen Brosseau. While no one has formally announced their intentions to seek the leadership, discussions within caucus are happening. These three MPs say they are not ruling anything out at this point. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright

By CHELSEA NASH

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016 12:00 AM

PARLIAMENT HILL—NDP Leader Tom Mulcair will continue to hold the government to account in Question Period, but he will likely take a back seat elsewhere over the coming months to allow “stars” to gain profile before the party elects a new leader next year, say NDP MPs and pundits.

With the NDP leadership race officially underway, although no candidates have officially announced, Mr. Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) will have an evolving role within the party until a new leader is elected next October, say NDP MPs.

“Definitely, you will see emerging members of caucus and other members of caucus step to the forefront side by side with Tom Mulcair. And that’s Tom’s choice as well,” said New Democrat MP Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway, B.C.).

NDP pundit Ian Capstick said at this point in Mr. Mulcair’s leadership it’s “a little late in the days for him to be the messenger” for the new progressive vision that the NDP needs to put forward in order to counter the Liberals’ popularity and progressive image.  

  

“The New Democratic caucus is going to be the salvation of the New Democratic Party, if they are the ones who are put in the window. This cannot be a prosecutorial sideshow as we lead into the NDP leadership race. We need to see who has the ability to hold this government to account, and that’s what NDP members are looking forward to,” Mr. Capstick said.

Mr. Mulcair has been the subject of criticism by many—including those within his own caucus—for remaining on as leader when his party voted in favour of holding a leadership race at its convention this past April. Mr. Mulcair committed to staying on as his party’s leader until a new one is elected next October. When the NDP held its fall caucus meeting in Montreal on Sept. 14 before the new session started, the CBC ran a headline that read, “Will the NDP’s caucus meeting be a group hug or a coup? They decide today.”

Initially after the convention, caucus members were divided over whether or not they wanted Mr. Mulcair to remain leader, or if it might be too “awkward,” as political scientist Duane Bratt put it at the time. But after the Montreal caucus meeting, NDP MP Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.) said his party is “united” and “determined.” The caucus gave Mr. Mulcair its unanimous support to continue his stewardship of the party.

Mr. Capstick said it is “incumbent” on the leader to put people like NDP MPs Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.), Mr. Julian, and NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau (Berthier-Maskinongé, Que.) out front in the House. “Hearing their voices much louder than the interim leader” is what members are looking forward to, Mr. Capstick said. “They’re looking forward to seeing people like Brosseau, Angus, Julian, taking the lead in this parliamentary session, because that is their job. It’s not the job of the interim leader.”

  

The New Democratic Party announced a leadership race after its annual convention this past April. The leader won’t be chosen until October 2017. To date, no candidates have officially announced, but a number of other high-profile NDP members thought to be frontrunners, including MPs Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, Que), and former Halifax MP Megan Leslie, have ruled out running.

Mr. Angus told The Hill Times that he hasn’t sat down to fully consider it yet, and is currently focused on connecting with the grassroots in his role as caucus chair for the time being. He did not say he was opposed to running, only that he hasn’t given it enough thought.

Ms. Brosseau told The Hill Times that she is still having discussions with her family, and weighing her options. She is the single mother of a “very active” 15-year-old boy, who she said is her biggest consideration. 

Mr. Julian told the CBC during the NDP’s caucus meeting that he has “opened the door” to running, but is still having those discussions within his party and within his riding.
Mr. Davies said the public shouldn’t expect anyone to formally announce for another three to six months. But, he did confirm that discussions within caucus about who is considering running are happening, and that excitement is building.

While he agreed that NDP caucus members should be working towards creating a bigger profile for themselves and speaking with the grassroots of the party, Robin Sears, of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to have anyone but Mr. Mulcair leading the charge in the House of Commons. Mr. Sears said people don’t pay attention to Question Period like they used to, adding that the NDP would be at fault for not using Mr. Mulcair’s abilities in the House of Commons, which he described as one of their biggest weapons.

  

Mr. Angus said caucus definitely has a role to play in taking “up some of the slack” in terms of engaging with the grassroots.

“Right now I think [Mr. Mulcair’s] role is going to be focused on where he’s very strong, which is in the House of Commons. But also, the role of the interim leader is also going to be paving the way for his successor. I think you’ll start to see an evolution in the role of the interim leader in the coming months,” Mr. Angus said.

That role will also involve members of caucus working hard to engage their base, he said. Mr. Angus said that, in his capacity as caucus chair, he spent a lot of time travelling around the country this summer talking to NDP members about what they want to see from their party.

“In my role as caucus chair, getting out and meeting people, there’s a real sense of, not so much optimism, but a desire to get back to work. Like, ‘Come on…let’s get to some of the issues,’” he said.  

The NDP say they will focus on health care and the environment.

After a tough year after last year’s election results which saw the NDP go from official opposition to the third party in the House losing 59 seats, fundraising numbers have been down, as have rankings in public opinion polls. The NDP were at about 13 per cent nationally in public opinion polls for the month of August, according to ThreeHundredEight.com, combining Forum and Abacus and CROP’s Quebec poll altogether, surveying 4,355 Canadians, while the Liberals were at about 48 per cent and the Conservatives at 29.5 per cent. 

And NDP fundraising isn’t much better: according to figures from Elections Canada, the NDP collected $1.08-million in the second quarter of 2016, compared to the Conservative Party at $5.07-million, and the governing Liberal Party at $4.9-million.

“We went through a spring that was very confusing for us in that we had a government that was extremely popular,” Mr. Angus said. Establishing a strategy around a prime minister who’s “more of a celebrity than a politician” is an “amorphous” task, he said. Then, there was the element of the Liberals “staying very close to us on all our priorities, so how best do we move?”

The New Democrats are hoping that by late October or early November, “when all the consultations, and task forces, and committees that the Liberals have struck come back with a whole bunch of recommendations,” it will be an opportunity for the NDP to strike, said Mr. Capstick. “The NDP’s No. 1 enemy has always been relevance. They always fight to remain relevant when the Liberal Party, particularly, seems to be making progressive strides forward.”

Mr. Capstick added that the NDP should be looking at creating a policy that is holistic in its approach and more progressive than ever.

NDP MP Erin Weir (Regina-Lewvan, Sask.) said articulating a “progressive vision” that will distinguish the NDP from the Liberals will be “essential” for their future.

“I would go so far as to say even more progressive than have been laid down by Alexa McDonough, Jack Layton, and Tom Mulcair. The party needs to leapfrog all of those positions and find new and incredibly different ways to speak about the environment and the economy,” said Mr. Capstick, speaking of former NDP leaders Mr. Layton and Ms. McDonough.

Mr. Julian said the questions the NDP asked themselves in their recent caucus meeting held in Montreal included how the NDP can “best perform the role that we’re performing as the progressive opposition.”  

Mr. Capstick said this fall House sitting will provide an opportunity for the NDP’s shadow cabinet critics to step forward and criticize the government on the decisions they will be making after the consultations are over. This, in turn, will boost some leadership contenders into the limelight, he said.

“I think what the NDP needs to do is see the House of Commons and see the national media stage as a trial run. If they’re a member of parliament who thinks they can actually be the leader of the party, well they have several months to attempt to dismantle the notion that Justin Trudeau is a progressive leader.”

cnash@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash