At the last NDP leadership debate, Thomas Mulcair came under fire from the other candidates for wanting to fundamentally change the direction of his party towards the centre of the political spectrum, distancing the NDP from its roots in the labour movement.
If elected leader, Mulcair would likely place the NDP on the political spectrum as a party of fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship, and jobs, balanced with socially progressive programs to help the poor and middle class, as well as promoting environmental sustainability. That leadership candidate Martin Singh -- described as a "pro-business" New Democrat -- has called on his supporters to pick Mulcair as their second choice seems to confirm Mulcair's pro-business credentials.
This balance of fiscal responsibility, pro-business, and social justice, would seem to put Mulcair's NDP in the same spot on the political spectrum traditionally occupied by the Liberals. This is a political balance that has proven successful for NDP governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
In addition, Mulcair has experience as a provincial cabinet minister, something that would further solidify the his image as a prime minister in waiting. Mulcair would thus seem a formidable NDP leader, one that Liberals and Conservatives would likely be the most worried about.
Though, it is possible that the theory of Mulcair leading the NDP may sound better than the practice.
Given the overall weakness of the NDP's Quebec caucus -- which includes many MPs who are new to politics and never expected to be elected -- it would still be a challenge to mould them into a formidable opposition team, especially given a Liberal caucus of highly experienced MPs. Furthermore, Quebec's electorate is a volatile one and even having a Quebec MP as leader is not a guarantee for the NDP to hold onto its Quebec gains in 2015.
Also, would the NDP base be happy with a centrist leading their traditionally left-of-centre party? By some definitions, Mulcair may even be considered right-of-centre. He was actively recruited by the Conservatives to run federally. As Quebec's Environment Minister under Jean Charest -- considered a right-of-centre premier -- Mulcair stated in an interview with Kady O'Malley (who is now with the CBC) that he was proud of promoting efficiency in his department, reducing staff, and reducing the department's budget by 15 per cent. This small-government conservatism would seem inimical to the social democratic NDP.
There is the possibility that a Mulcair-led NDP could open up space for the Liberals as the principled centre-left alternative. In Britain, Tony Blair's "New Labour" project took his party away from its social democrat roots towards the centre of the political spectrum, accommodating policies such as privatization.
On foreign policy, Blair's alliance with Bush on Iraq especially opened up space for the Liberal Democrats (that country's liberal party) as a principled alternative for its opposition to that war. Overall, during the tenure of the New Labour government, many British voters came to see the Liberal Democrats as the principled centre-left party and, over the course of the 1997, 2001, and 2005 campaigns, the Liberal Democrats steadily increased their seat count.
With Canada's Liberals having not long ago held government, the psychological barrier to voters switching back to them would be less than in the United Kingdom.
The biggest concern, however, is how the NDP achieved -- and how it will likely try to maintain -- its Quebec breakthrough. The NDP openly pandered to Quebec separatism with the Sherbrooke Declaration which states that the Quebec National Assembly -- even if led by a separatist government -- can write the referendum question and that only 50 per cent +1 support is needed for secession.
This contradicts the Clarity Act -- authored by Stéphane Dion and passed by the Chretien government -- which states that a "clear majority" is needed (most likely more than 50 per cent +1) and that the referendum question must be clear. The Clarity Act was passed in 2000 in the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum where the province came perilously close to a 50 per cent +1 vote for separation on a vaguely worded question.
There is also hostility among many Quebec separatists to multiculturalism, with, for example, the Parti Quebecois recently calling meat slaughtered in the traditional Muslim manner an affront to Quebec values. This is an electorate that is now central to the NDP coalition. Thus on Harper's ban of burqas at citizenship ceremonies, the NDP was unable to offer a consistent answer.
With Conservatives who see the federal government's role as more about building prisons and fighter jets than providing social programs, and an NDP beholden to separatist forces in Quebec, there is a worrying lack of national vision in Canadian politics.
This is where the Liberal Party can step in. Lester Pearson offered a new Canadian flag and nationwide medicare. Pierre Trudeau promoted bilingualism, multiculturalism, the Charter of Rights, a fierce commitment to federalism, and a foreign policy based on diplomacy and humanitarianism.
The Liberal Party needs to step up to the plate again, and offer a true national vision for the country -- one that includes jobs and entrepreneurship, multiculturalism, and bilingualism from coast to coast to coast, a concern for the poor, for environmental conservation, and a strong commitment to national unity.
A Mulcair-led NDP may be a formidable force in Canadian politics, but can it offer a true national vision for Canada?
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