Thomas Mulcair has claimed time and again on the campaign trail that NDP premiers have the best record for balanced budgets in Canada.
Except in one case, he likes to say. "And he turned out to be a Liberal."
The punchline, of course, is a dig at Bob Rae, the first (and only) NDP premier of Ontario who later became a Liberal MP and interim leader of the federal party.
But Mulcair has resisted directly naming Rae — now a private citizen — when using that line in stump speeches. At the Munk foreign policy debate in Toronto Monday, the NDP leader changed course.
In a brief diversion from international issues, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau charged that Mulcair's pledge to run balanced budgets means he won't be able to immediately invest in infrastructure. He also noted that Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has expressed reservations about her federal cousins' approach to climate change.
"When you can't even get an NDP premier to endorse your environmental plan, you know you're in real trouble, Mr. Mulcair," Trudeau said.
Mulcair accused Trudeau of wanting to dump a "massive economic debt on the backs of future generations" and began to sing the praises of New Democrats with a familiar tune.
"The NDP has the best track record of any party in Canada for balanced budgets," he said.
The remark sparked immediate laughter from some in the audience.
"Oh, you're right, you're right. I forgot I was in Toronto, there was one exception but it turned out that Bob Rae was a Liberal," Mulcair said.
The quip sparked even more laughter and applause.
The NDP leader said Tommy Douglas took over Saskatchewan — which "the Liberals had left in bankruptcy" — and ran 17 consecutive balanced budgets, while ushering in universal medical care.
Though largely an aside, the remark did not sit well with Rae.
The former Ontario premier took to Twitter to defend his record and remind Mulcair that he too once belonged to a different political party – the Quebec Liberals.
Rae also seemed to criticize Mulcair's earlier reference to Pierre Trudeau's invocation of the War Measures Act — which was interpreted by the Liberal leader as an "attack" on the 15th anniversary of his father's death.
Very tired line from Mulcair - "sort of like being attacked by a dead sheep"- proud to have led a govt that re-built Ontario at a tough time— Bob Rae (@BobRae48) September 29, 2015
I didn't always agree with Pierre Trudeau but he was a great man. I can't say the same about Tom Mulcair #cdnpoli— Bob Rae (@BobRae48) September 29, 2015
Mulcair's entire "record" on the environment was when he was a Liberal. So I guess it didn't count. #cdnpoli.— Bob Rae (@BobRae48) September 29, 2015
Nastiness is one thing, recycled nastiness is worse. #cdnpoli— Bob Rae (@BobRae48) September 29, 2015
When Mulcair told reporters after the debate that he was gunning for a "strong, stable majority" government, Rae couldn't resist one more dig.
Apparently Mulcair said he's campaigning for a "strong stable majority government". Even his fantasies are written by someone else #cdnpoli— Bob Rae (@BobRae48) September 29, 2015
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