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Media Bites: So What's In a Name, Mulcair?

09/15/2013 11:45 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

If the goal was to make us forget he existed, it quite clearly didn't work. I'm referring to Thomas Mulcair's weird habit, which has only recently been the subject of some critical analysis by the press, of never calling Justin Trudeau by his full name. Sometimes he uses "the Liberal leader," more often he ignores the existence of the man altogether in favour of simply condemning the faceless blob that is "the Liberals."

Mulcair's September 11 keynote address at the NDP's big fancy summer retreat in Saskatchewan was the most recent appearance of the tic -- while Harper got seven name drops, Trudeau got zero -- but it's a habit that seems to date all the way back to Justin's ascension to the Liberal throne last April. Mulcair made no named mention of the new Liberal boss during his speech at the NDP convention held a few days after JT's crowning, despite the fact that the man's rise to power had been basically the only Canadian political story of the last seven months, while polls at the time were hinting at the possibility of an electoral landslide under Trudeaumania redux. "Justin Who?" snickered headline writers.

Mulcair's given varying reasons for why he does this. In an interview with the HuffPost's Althia Raj earlier this month, he affected his best academic Marxist tone and said his intent was to focus on "the Liberal party as a structure" with certain "historically" constant inclinations, and not waste time bashing whatever passing figurehead's nominally in charge. In a Wednesday presser he was a bit more sassy, and scoffed that "you have to point to something Justin Trudeau has ever done for me to be able to mention him."

Judging from the polls, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that this gimmick is paying dividends for the NDP. Despite Mulcair's best efforts, Trudeau's profile remains high, as does the prospect of a Liberal comeback under his rule. A recent survey had the Grits beating the Dippers nationally 34 per cent to 25 per cent, while another had Mulcair's party at a record-low in the must-win province of Quebec. It seems more than likely, in fact, that the only lasting legacy of the whole he-who-shall-not-be-named running gag will be an ugly new precedent in the ongoing battle of Canadian politicians going out of their way to deny each other even the thinnest shred of public dignity.

It's revealing to observe, for instance, that while Stephen Harper tends to get a lot of mentions in Mulcair's speeches, his name is almost always spat out in that format -- "Stephen Harper," or "Mr. Harper." Only on the rarest of occasions do we hear the phrase "the Prime Minister" (usually dismissively qualified as "this Prime Minister"), and  never "Prime Minister Harper."

Mulcair's not unique in this, of course. Liberal Party editorials and petitions only talk about this "Mr. Harper" character, and in Elizabeth May's infamous "Harper is not Canadian" interview of this past June, reporter Laura Stone noted with mild amusement the Green boss' habit of "referring to him always by his full name."

Expecting that opposition leaders would refer to our country's ruler by his proper title is hardly a fussy instance on some anal point of protocol. When a man winds up as Prime Minister of Canada, he inherits an office that's a permanent part of our constitutional framework and democratic system of government, vested with powers and responsibilities that derive from his mandate as a popularly-elected leader. To put it another way, Canada is not ruled by Stephen Harper per se, we are ruled by our prime minister who happens to be Stephen Harper at the moment.

Being ruled by some guy is arbitrary and offensive; being governed by a constitutional office is dignified and legitimate. In the United States you'll rarely hear a Republican office-holder refer to Barack Obama as anything but "President Obama" in their speeches and handouts; even right-wingers who loathe the man with vein-bulging intensity -- say, Michelle Bachmann -- do this. The reason is that in America, there's a deeply engrained understanding that while Oval Office occupants come and go, the Presidency of the United States is something permanent, and deserving of a respect bigger than any man that temporarily fills it.

Obama may suck in countless ways, but by using polite titles even in impolite speeches and screeds, the principle of honoring the democratic legitimacy of his power is upheld, even when there's no corresponding respect for how those powers are used. (The same is true, for that matter, for liberal Democrats who nicely speak of the loathed "Speaker Boehner" or "Governor Romney.")

In Canada, however, our parties have made the far more cynical calculation that portraying rival politicians in speech and words not as respectable office holders with titles and identities, but either nameless, faceless ghosts (in the case of Mulcair's approach to Justin Trudeau) or random, angry men lacking any sort of legitimizing mandate (in the case of the opposition's characterization of Harper) is a good way to whip up enough disgust to mobilize folks to the ballot box.

Either that, or turn Canadian politics into a bitter, childish, off-putting spectacle of jealous personal rivalries and exceedingly petty snobbishness that does little more than foster ever-greater public apathy, disinterest, and disrespect for our political institutions, while not generating any observative partisan gain for any politician in the process.

Which scenario sounds more plausible? Ask Thomas Mulcair's pollster.

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