Thomas Mulcair

50% + 1

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics | 30 Comments

After dancing around the issue for several years, it appears the NDP finally has a clear position on the Clarity Act:

On Monday, the NDP introduced legislation to allow Quebec to secede with a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one. The party also wants to impose a tougher question in the event of a third referendum in the province, such as: “Should Quebec separate from Canada and become a sovereign country?”

The NDP bill aims to replace the 2000 Clarity Act, which was passed by the previous Liberal government after a tight referendum on Quebec sovereignty five years earlier. While it does not include an exact threshold, the Clarity Act calls for a “clear majority” and sends a signal that Ottawa would require a convincing victory by sovereigntists to launch negotiations on Quebec secession.

So there you have it. The NDP supports a clear question but not a clear majority. Which is certainly their prerogative, even if it’s one I disagree with.

Also disagreeing is one Justin Trudeau (and I’d imagine most other leadership candidates), so you can expect this to be a key line of division between the Liberals and NDP in the next election.

2012 Woman of the Year

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in 2012 Alberta Election, Alberta Politics, Featured Posts, Person of the Year | 3 Comments

Every December, I like to name a “Person of the Year” – the individual who left their mark on Canadian politics over the past year. The only rules are that the PM is too obvious a choice, and that lame picks (“You!”) are strictly verboten. The Person of the Year doesn’t need to be someone who used the force for the powers of good, or someone I like – just someone who made a difference. Below is a list of recent choices:

2011: Jack Layton
2010: Rob Ford and Naheed Nenshi
2009: Jim Flaherty
2008: Stephane Dion
2007: Jean Charest
2006: Michael Ignatieff
2005: Belinda Stronach
2004: Ralph Klein

Unlike 2011, when Jack Layton’s rise and death came to define the year that was in Canadian politics, no single event or person stands out in 2012. There was no federal election, and little that happened in Ottawa resonated outside the political bubble. After being warned about Harper’s “hidden agenda” for a decade, the most newsworthy item of Flaherty’s first majority budget was the death of the penny.

The robocon scandal might eventually stick, but we have no way of knowing, so selecting Pierre Poutine, or Misters McGregor and Maher is likely premature. A few people on Twitter nominated Mark Carney, but I’m not sure his flirtation with the Liberal Party or departure to England will really change much.

Rather, the focus in Ottawa this year was largely on leadership races in the opposition ranks. Thomas Mulcair deserves consideration for Person of the Year – he won a competitive race, allowing the NDP to complete their journey from protest to pragmatism. Mulcair proved himself to be a steady opposition leader, but his polling bounce has faded due to…

Justin Trudeau. I don’t doubt that Trudeaumania II will be the “Story of the Year” on a lot of recap lists, but it’s not clear to me Justin left any lasting mark on Canadian politics (other than the ones on Patrick Brazeau’s face). And being talked about isn’t enough to make you the Person of the Year, or else I’d be handing out this award to the IKEA Monkey.

If we move outside of federal politics, a couple of past winners find themselves on the short list again in 2012. Rob Ford was a headline machine this year, culminating with a judge ordering him to be removed from office. The only problem is, if we’re going to start naming troubled Mayors, it would make for one long list of co-winners, since you’d also need to include Gerard Tremblay, Gilles Vaillancourt, and Joe Fontana, among others.

It’s tempting to give my 2007 Person of the Year, Jean Charest, and fellow Liberal-on-the-way out Dalton McGuinty a lifetime achievement award for the impact they’ve had on Canadian politics over the past decade. After all, this fall’s Quebec election was a thriller, and Charest surprised everyone by nearly hanging on.

However, even more exciting and unpredictable was the Alberta election. Which brings us to our 2012 Woman of the Year:

Alison Redford poses with Daryl Katz

The PCs winning elections in Alberta is hardly news. They’ve now done that a dozen times in a row, and will soon break the record as the longest-serving government in Canadian history. Alison Redford won 61 of 87 seats which, admittedly, marks a down year for the PCs – but is still considered a rout in most functioning democracies.

But, oh, what an exciting rout that was.

Redford led by 37 points in a January Leger poll, and there were actually non-satirical articles printed citing senior Tories worried they’d win “too many” seats. Luckily for those senior Conservatives, Alison Redford quickly put those fears to rest.

The issue that landed Redford in dire straits and caused her to lose complete control of the agenda was the “money for nothing” controversy. When it came to light that MLAs were receiving $1,000 a month to sit on a committee which hadn’t met in four years, the opposition members did the sensible thing and returned the money. Redford did not. She called the gesture by the opposition MLAs a “stunt” and said there was nothing wrong with the committee – but hung her MLAs out to dry by suggesting there would be electoral consequences if they didn’t return the cash. Her caucus whip said voters were too stupid to understand the issue. Redford dithered and didn’t act until the polls went south a month after the story broke. But the damage was done. She had given the Wildrose Party all the ammunition they would need to run an “entitled to their entitlements” campaign.

In most years, Redford’s stumbles wouldn’t have been fatal, but what made this a truly great election was that the PCs were facing their strongest competition in 20 years. Smith versus Redford pitted two of the country’s strongest politicians head-to-head, in what is likely to become Canada’s most interesting political rivalry over the next few years. Contrary to what anyone reading news stories in 2010 or 2011 would believe, Danielle Smith isn’t perfect – she confusingly tried to brand herself as the “anti-change” candidate and presented voters with a gimmicky platform, offering Ralph Bucks and Doris Day petitions. But Smith is a smart, articulate, and charismatic politician, so it’s no surprise her campaign strategy of “let’s do photo-ops with cute animals” was paying off. Before long, the Wildrose Party had pulled ahead. Alison Redford was sounding more and more desperate by the day, accusing the Wildrosers of being the party of “old white men” (fun fact: Alison Redford’s Cabinet was 86% male and 95% white).

By this time, Wildrose campaign manager Tom Flanagan must have been having flashbacks to the 2004 federal election – a long time government brings in a new leader with expectations of a landslide victory, only to mismanage a scandal and see a new right wing party pull ahead. Sadly for Doctor Tom, the similarities would continue down the stretch, with voters en masse having second thoughts about what this new right wing party truly stood for.

For that, Redford can thank a pair of Wildrose candidates. Allan Hunsperger blogged that gays would burn for all eternity in a lake of fire in hell, and Danielle Smith didn’t seem too troubled. Ron Leech talked about “the white advantage”, and Danielle Smith didn’t seem too troubled, saying every candidate should put forward “their best argument for why they should be the person who can best represent the community”.

For a variety of reasons, the pundits and polls were as off the mark as Smith’s candidates, setting up one of the most stunning election nights in Canadian history. Columnists across the country were forced to madly re-write their columns on the demise of the PC dynasty. Some weren’t able to, hence Andrew Coyne’s first page Post column which beganUnless something astonishing happens, the Wildrose Party will form the next government of Alberta”. Turns out astonishing things can happen in politics every now and then – even in boring, predictable Alberta.

Redford has stayed in the news post-election, thanks mainly to two more badly mismanaged scandals. However, she’s also had an impact on the national stage, being at the centre of the Enbridge pipeline feud with Christy Clark. Although Redford has only been PC leader for a little over a year, she is quickly becoming one of the most well known and respected names on the national stage – and her prominence is likely to grow with new Premiers recently elected or on the way in Quebec, Ontario, and BC (unless something astonishing happens!). With Alberta continuing to grow, and Redford showing an eagerness to expand Alberta’s influence in Canada and around the world, expect to hear more from her in 2013.

Another Argument Against Legalizing Pot Goes Up In Smoke

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in 2012 US Election, Federal Politics, Policy, US Politics | 14 Comments

The stoned slacker vote is up for grabs

In the midst of a largely status-quo election, several groundbreaking ballot initiatives passed last night. Puerto Rico voted to apply for statehood. Same sex marriage was legalized in Maine and Maryland, and was upheld in Washington State, snapping a 32 vote losing streak for equal marriage proponents. And both Washington State and Colorado voted for complete marijuana legalization and regulation. The implications of this in Canada could be far reaching, and I’m not just talking about a spike in “road trips” from Vancouver to Seattle over reading week. I expect what happened last night will lead to some sober reflection on Canadian drug laws.

At least it should, because on the very same day marijuana laws in these two states became more liberal than Amsterdam, an omnibus bill imposing mandatory sentencing for drug crimes in Canada came into effect. So while ganja may be coming to a store near you in Denver, a student who grows 6 marijuana plants in his UBC dorm room and shares them with his friends could be looking at 9 months in jail.

While the NDP and Liberals have spoken against these “tough on crime” measures, both parties have been rather timid on the drug file in recent years. In March, Thomas Mulcair said he was against decriminalization because marijuana leads to mental illness. He later backtracked, saying he was confused between decriminalization and legalization; in either event, it’s safe to say we won’t see much movement from the NDP on this issue anytime soon. When asked about marijuana by High School students in 2010, Michael Ignatieff showed his deft ability to relate to youth by telling them he’d rather see them “digging ditches” than smoking “marijuana cigarettes”.

Ignatieff elaborated on his position by pointing to border problems legalizing the drug in Canada would create. Indeed, supporters of the current prohibition laws are quick to claim legalizing a product in Canada that is illegal in the US would lead to everything from chilled diplomatic relations to 10-hour lineups and full car searches at the border. But thanks to voters in Washington and Colorado, these arguments have now gone up in smoke. After all, no one’s going to risk smuggling joints across the border when you can just as easily buy American.

Most importantly, should these ballot measures withstand almost-certain legal challenges, there will now be two trials to cite when making the case for or against legalization. For better or wose, we’re about to find out what legalization really means; I imagine social scientists are already giddy with excitement at the prospect of crunching the crime data. If unintended consequences or logistical nightmares rear their head, no one will look at legalization in Canada for another 30 years – But if the results are largely positive and the tax dollars roll in, the case for legalization will no longer be theoretical. Suddenly, the risk won’t look quite so big and the change won’t seem quite as scary.

Regardless of what the courts say, yesterday’s votes will serve to embolden legalization activists on both sides of the border. Washington and Colorado may be blue states, but Obama only carried them with slim majorities – surely us public-healthcare-gay-marriage-loving socialists in Canada are at least as supportive of marijuana legalization, eh? These results should therefore give everyone pause to rethink the common wisdom that being labelled “soft on drugs” is campaign kryptonite. After all, the most basic rule of politics is that if the public supports something, it doesn’t hurt a politician to also support it.

Despite that, I can’t see Harper or Mulcair changing their positions – they’ve both stated their opposition to legalization and both are timid risk-averse politicians. But what about the Liberals, whose members voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana at their convention earlier this year? As I wrote at the time, there are many below-the-surface electoral implications to consider before running on a pro-pot platform. Who feels strong enough about this issue to change their vote over it? Does this help Liberal fundraising efforts? Does this play to the larger narrative of the Liberals as the party of “evidence-based” policy? Does it detract from the rest of the platform? If Justin Trudeau is the next Liberal leader, does this show he’s gutsy and stands for something, or does it play into the “airhead” narrative? Would this, combined with Justin’s youth appeal, actually get young Canadians out to the polls?

It’s a complex electoral calculus, but what happened south of the border last night might very well be the tipping point that prompts the Liberals to light up and run on legalization in 2015.

Who Would Canadians Turn to in the Event of a Cylon Attack?

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Humour | 3 Comments

As this picture shows, Justin Trudeau is NOT Canada’s best hope to lead the Rebel Alliance. However, in the event of a cylon attack, Justin is the man.

Last week, Postmedia ran the most awesome headline ever:

Conservative government’s order of succession shows Canada isn’t ready for a Cylon attack

The article itself isn’t earth shattering, but it does raise an important, albeit often overlooked, question. Earlier this summer, a poll showed Americans trusted Obama over Romney to deal with an alien invasion, but there’s sadly no quantitative evidence as to who Canadians would turn to if faced with a similar crisis. To bring clarity to this issue, I have therefore looked at how the different party leaders stack up in the key aspects of surviving a cylon invasion, using President Laura Roslin as the gold standard.

(NOTE: While a case could be made that Marc Garneau’s experience makes him the obvious candidate, I will follow the practice of pretty much every pollster and assume Justin Trudeau is the next Liberal leader)

Key 1 – Willingness to compromise for the greater good: Despite being an idealist, Laura Roslin was often forced into unwinnable situations that required her to sacrifice her principles to ensure survival. Torture cylon agents? Airlock prisoners? Ban abortion to repopulate the human race? For Roslin, the ends justified the means.

While all politicians compromise their principles in power, no one does it as effortlessly as Harper. A flip-flop on income trusts? A climb down on Senate reform? Ignoring his fixed election date law? Frak yeah! Harper didn’t blink. And like Roslin, Harper turned a blind eye to his campaign team’s alleged use of electoral fraud to get him re-elected.

Edge: Harper

Key 2 – Embrace the prophecy: Roslin relied heavily on visions to lead her people. After all, the ancient scriptures of Kobol identified her as the spiritual leader who would find earth.

While Tom Mulcair may have a bit of a god-complex, Justin Trudeau seems the most likely to be the chosen one. Like Roslin, he comes from humble roots as a school teacher and has little experience in a position of power.

Moreover, he was born on Christmas Day and thousands of Liberals already see him as their Messiah. Maybe there’s something to it.

Edge: Trudeau

Key 3 – Able to fight: Inevitably, as the human race struggles to survive, there will be mutinies, rebellions, and hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. There’s a good chance the President will have to literally fight for their life at some point.

On this point, it’s no contest. Yes, cylons may be tougher to knock down than Conservative Senators, but Trudeau has proven his toughness.

Edge: Trudeau

Key 4 – Humanity: Of course, we still need to address the most important aspect of a cylon attack – what if they’ve already placed human look alike “skinjobs” in positions of power, waiting to activate them once the fighting begins. Above all else, it is paramount that the leader of the post-apocalyptic government be not only human, but above suspicion of being one of the final five.

While it seems unlikely the cylons would create a model so obviously robotic and devoid of emotions as Stephen Harper, there would no doubt be suspicions. And really, we must ask ourselves how much we know about the current Prime Minister. How often do you hear Harper talk about his childhood growing up in Ontario? Would it really surprise anyone if this flimsy backstory is nothing more than a cover designed to hide his mechanical roots?

Justin Trudeau, however, has been in the public eye since he was born. Criticize him all you want, but unless the cylons have developed a model that can age from fetus to adult, Justin is undeniably human.

Edge: Trudeau

So while we may not know where he stands on all the issues, on this point there is little doubt – Justin Trudeau is the leader Canada needs in the event of a cylon attack.

So say we all!

Vote Out Anders – Part 84

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics | 2 Comments

Only Rob Anders has this theory, because he pays closer attention to the House of Commons than anyone else.

At least when Rob Anders is sleeping, he can’t say anything too offensive:

And so, [Anders] has a theory.

“I actually think one of the great stories that was missed by journalists was that Mr. Mulcair, with his arm twisted behind the scenes, helped to hasten Jack Layton’s death,” he said.

“It was very clear to me watching the two of those gentlemen in the front benches, that Jack Layton was ill and that Mr. Mulcair was making it quite obvious that if Jack wasn’t well enough to fight the campaign and fight the election that he should step aside, and that because of that, Mr. Layton put his life at risk to go into the national election, and fight it, and did obviously an amazing job considering his state of health, and that he did that partly because of the arm-twisting behind the scenes by Mulcair and then subsequently died.”

Charest’s Loss May Be Harper’s Gain

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics, Quebec Politics | 5 Comments

It was hard for Harper to say no to “the most federalist Premier in my lifetime”…and the one man who laughed at his jokes.

Although the federal leaders executed Cirque Du Soleil worthy backflips to stay out of the Quebec election, the repercussions of this vote will be far reaching. Having a separatist attack dog in Quebec City – even one on a minority government leash – undeniably changes the dynamic in Ottawa.

So who benefits?


The Liberals

Traditionally, Canadians have tended to trust the Liberal Party on the national unity file, and this is an area where the Trudeau brand remains strong. While I’m sure Justin doesn’t want to become a shadow of his father, people will listen when he speaks out about national unity, so it’s an issue he could use to define himself.

Assuming of course, he manages to win the leadership. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But at the very least, another Liberal leader could still press the issue by sending Trudeau before the cameras or having Stephane Dion write an open letter to Pauline Marois. Hell, I think we know Stephane will be doing that, regardless of whatever the next Liberal leader wants.

And yes, no one seriously expects there to be a referendum call during Marois’ term as Premier. But what if she tries to forge ahead with some of her controversial religious and linguistic policies? That sounds to me like a great opportunity for a party looking to reclaim its position as the defender of minority rights to take a firm stand – even if it means alienating a few xenophobic pequistes.


The Conservatives

There was a time when Stephen Harper would shower Jean Charest with compliments at every press conference, but the love has faded from their relationship in recent years. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Stephen Harper secretly rooting for a PQ victory last week. A Marois minority was likely his best-case outcome, politically speaking.

After all, it’s not like Stephen Harper has made a name for himself building consensus between the federal government and the provinces. For a man who is rarely seen smiling with the Premiers, a good enemy is more valuable than a shaky ally. And what a foil Marois is! This isn’t a “charming separatist” in the mould of Lucien Bouchard or Gilles Duceppe – outside Quebec, she is seen as destructive, closed-minded, and hateful. It’s a lot easier to say “non” to Pauline Marois than to “Captain Canada”, Jean Charest.

Conflict with a PQ government is inevitable, and Harper can score points outside Quebec by standing up to Marois. However, unlike Trudeau or Chretien, the threat of a referendum does not hang over Harper’s head, minimizing the risk of a tough position.

And it’s not like Harper has a lot to lose. Unlike…


The NDP

Thomas Mulcair is in a delicate position. Many of the people who elected his Quebec MPs justed voted in Pauline Marois – but the people who elected his other MPs are not fans of hers. Don’t expect Mulcair to be rushing to the microphones the next time Marois says something controversial.

Further muddying the waters are Mulcair’s musings about starting a provincial NDP in Quebec. While this might help the NDP organizationally, it could box them into positions they’d rather not take. It’s one thing to go by Thomas in Quebec and Tom elsewhere – on policy, Mulcair is going to get burned on any inconsistencies.

The Liberals rightly recognize that national unity is an area where they can score points vis-a-vis the Dippers. They’ve already tried to smoke the NDP out by musing about a motion re-affirming support for the Clarity Act. Expect more of that as Marois pushes national unity front and centre. The NDP may have gotten a free ride on the Sherbrooke Declaration when Jean Charest was Premier and they were the third party in the house, but the level of scrutiny will be higher for a government-in-waiting, with the separatists in power.

Mulcair is going to have to defend positions that may not be popular in the rest of Canada. Bonne chance!

Who had June 25th in the pool?

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Ads, Federal Politics | 9 Comments

The much-anticipated Thomas Mulcair attack ads have arrived:

Other than changing the off-grey colours from red to orange, this doesn’t look to be much more than a recycled anti-Liberal TV spot – torqued policy positions, lots of talk about “risks”, and a cameo by the scary carbon tax.

But while the style is reminiscent of attack ads of yore, there is one striking difference between this and the “Just Visiting“/”Not a Leader” campaigns. Simply put, the Tories have adopted a far more policy-based strategy when it comes to defining this leader of the opposition. Dion was branded as wimpy and weak, Ignatieff as an intellectual snob. This ad doesn’t even contain so much as a gratuitous “he’s out of touch” pot shot, despite plenty of opportunities to slide something of the sort in.

Rather, the focus is squarely on NDP policies (or “theories” as the ad mischievously calls them) – both real and, in the case of the carbon tax, imagined. That’s likely the best strategy, given the NDP’s vulnerability on economic issues, and Harper’s never-ending mantra about maintaining our “strong, stable, economic recovery”.

But it’s also possible the Tories have yet to come up with an attack on Mulcair’s personality and leadership skills they feel will leave a mark.

Calgary Centre By-Election

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in by elections, Federal Politics | 13 Comments

As David Wilks reminded us last week, Conservative backbenchers are “not going to make a difference”. So it’s not at all surprising that Lee Richardson has turned his back on Ottawa to take a job as Alison Redford’s principal secretary.

This gives Stephen Harper six months to call a by-election in Calgary Centre, and one assumes it will get rolled up with the Etobicoke Centre re-vote, should the Supreme Court uphold the original ruling. In some respects, Richardson’s resignation is actually good news for Harper – even if the Tories fall in Etobicoke Centre, they’ll be able to cushion the impact with a win in Calgary Centre.

Because win they will.

Although Liberal candidate Julia Turnbull put up a good fight back when Richardson first won the riding in 2004, he took it by 40 points last spring.

Admittedly, we’ve seen some dramatic by-elections over the years, but there are no local dynamics in play here that suggest the Conservatives have anything to worry about.

That leaves us with two races to watch. The first will be the Conservative nomination – assuming they don’t just appoint a candidate, as they did when Jim Prentice’s seat opened up. Daveberta has run down the list of possible candidates including, John Mar, Jeremy Nixon, Paul Hinman, and Ezra Levant. Although a Levant candidacy would be entertaining, I’m fairly sure the powers-that-be will find a way to make sure someone better than Ezra gets the nod.

The other race to watch will be the battle for second – in 2011, the NDP came within 1,400 votes of the Liberals, and in 2008 the Greens came within 600. In recent years, we’ve seen the NDP supplant the Liberals as the second place party in most of Edmonton’s progressive ridings, so they’d no doubt love to do the same in Calgary. Mind you, that task becomes more and more difficult each and every time Thomas Mulcair opens his mouth.

Mulcair Takes on the West

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics | 4 Comments

What started out as musings on the health of Ontario’s manufacturing sector has quickly escalated into a full fledged war of words between Tom Mulcair and the western Premiers. It’s an important shift in the dialogue, because going to war with the West is a lot different than going to war with the oilsands – after all, you won’t find many “save our oilsands” protests in front of Libby Davies’ Vancouver East constituency office.

Mulcair picking a fight with Premiers Clark, Redford, and Wall has led to his first patch of negative press since winning the NDP leadership – and rightly so. Calling Premiers who stick up for local industry “messengers of Stephen Harper” (in a tone that makes them sound like a swarm of Nazgul) brings him down to the level of Jim Flaherty, who routinely plays the role of Ontario’s leader of the opposition.

I think we can all agree Mulcair shouldn’t be disparaging the Premiers on this issue, but it’s less clear whether or not this is a shrewd tactical move, or another case of Mulcair not thinking before opening his mouth.

The first thing to consider is the popularity of the people Mulcair is attacking. We know Brad Wall is more popular than God and Alison Redford just pulled off a small miracle in Alberta. However, the third member of this trinity has seen better days and now trails the provincial NDP by 27 points – so it’s hard to fault Mulcair for alligning himself with the BC Dippers. Even in Saskatchewan, the fallout from attacking Wall might be minimal, as the provincial and federal NDP received similar shares of the popular vote during elections there last year. Just as there are many western voters who share Mulcair’s disdain for the oilsands, there are many western voters who nodded in agreement as Mulcair criticized their premiers.

In the broader picture, the trade-off between votes in the East and votes in the West might explain Mulcair’s gambit. To form government, the NDP will need to pick up at least 30-50 more seats next election. Of the 50 ridings the NDP came closest to winning in 2011, just 16 are in Western Canada – moreover, there are only four seats in Western Canada the party won by less than 10% last election, suggesting it will take more than a Twitter feud with Brad Wall to bring Mulcair down.

So there’s an argument to be made for concentrating on eastern voters, if you buy that the NDP’s road to 24 Sussex bypasses the West. If that’s the case, Mulcair’s salvo on the oilsands might not be the gaffe its being portrayed as, and it won’t be the last time he picks a fight with the western provinces.

Of course, Western Canada will be gaining new seats in 2015, and there’s the long game to think about. On that front, Mulcair would be well served learning from the party he hopes to replace. For years the Liberals won elections by scapegoating the West and, in particular, the oil industry. This electoral math equation usually paid off, but in the long run it has left Western Canada a charred dust-bowl for the Liberals, with nothing more than 4 specs of red west of Ontario left on the map.

Even if Mulcair can score a few extra seats in 2015 by playing the regions against each other, it’s not a strategy that is likely to pay off for the NDP in the long run.

The Third Way

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Boring internal Liberal Party matters, Federal Politics, Policy, Polls | Leave a comment

The latest Ipsos poll paints a rather dreary picture of Liberal fortunes, with what was once the natural governing party languishing more than 15 points behind both the NDP and the Conservatives.

Of course, the NDP are in their post-leadership honeymoon, the Liberals don’t have a permanent leader, and a horse race poll when politics is the farthest thing from the electorate’s mind won’t tell you a lot. But I think we can safely assume the Liberals are a distant third, trailing two parties who are both intent on hugging the centre of the road, making it almost impossible to pass them. So what’s a centrist party to do?

I agree with Rae’s message of staying to the middle of the spectrum, but the days of finding sunny compromises between the NDP and Conservative extremes on every single issue are numbered. When you’re the third place party you need to give people a reason to vote for you, and a milquetoast platform topped with some language about the “extremist” positions of two very non-extremist parties isn’t going to be convincing.

Faced with this new reality, the challenge is standing out and being noticed. That likely means on occasion passing the two parties ahead of you on the right, and on occasion passing them on the left. So maybe the Liberals adopt a few “right wing” economic policies even the Conservatives dare not touch, like the abolishment of supply management. Maybe it means “out-NDPing” the NDP by proposing a national pharmacare program.

Of course, the entire concept of a left-right political spectrum is somewhat arbitrary when you think about it. Is democratic reform a right wing or a left wing issue? Either way, parties talk a lot less about it the closer they get to power, so there may be an opening there for the Liberals who are decidedly nowhere near power. There’s certainly an opening on the “Quebec question”, given the PQ may be in power a year from now, and both the Tories and NDP have spent long nights flirting with the separatists in recent years.

The other thing to consider is the dirty little secret that most voters aren’t reading through party platforms and casting their vote based on policy. Did Jack Layton leap from third to second because voters found his policies that much more compelling than Ignatieff’s? Most voters would be hard pressed to identify a single area of cleavage between the two party platforms.

Now, I’m not saying the Liberals are one leadership change away from power. As I’ve written before, there’s a lot of structural work to be done, and even if voters didn’t know the intricacies of the Liberal and NDP platforms last election, they had a clear impression of party brands, and an overall sense of party values. But a party’s leader does matter, and it’s just as important to have a leader who can differentiate himself or herself from Mulcair and Harper, as it is to have policies that can be differentiated from the NDP and CPC platforms. That doesn’t mean the Liberals should search for the anti-Mulcair or shy away from an experienced and polished politician like Harper – only that there needs to be some kind of “value add” that makes their leader stand out. The brilliance of Jack was that he always smiled and could connect with voters – that’s an ability Michael Ignatieff lacked completely, and one both Harper and Mulcair struggle with.

In the past, all the Liberals needed to do to get elected was wedge themselves squarely between the extremes. There are still many issues for which that strategy makes sense from both an ideological and political perspective. But adopting that knee-jerk approach on every issue and failing to stand out is a sure fire path to irrelevance.

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