OTTAWA - Thomas Mulcair is hinting he may not seek the NDP leadership because the membership numbers are stacked against him.
And he's calling on the party to rectify the situation.
The Montreal MP pointed out Monday that Quebec, his home base, is the only province that does not have a provincial wing of the party.
As a result, Quebec has only about 1,700 of the NDP's roughly 87,000 members, even though it accounts for more than half the party's 102 seats in the House of Commons.
By contrast, provincial wings elsewhere — particularly in British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan — have added tens of thousands of new members recently as they fought provincial leadership races or election campaigns.
And all of them will be eligible to vote for a successor to Jack Layton, the late federal leader, in March.
"We are disadvantaged (in Quebec)," Mulcair said. "It's not a complaint, it's a simple observation."
Mulcair raised the uneven membership distribution to explain why he has not yet formally announced his candidacy for the leadership.
"I'm getting a lot of support and encouragement from across Canada but that's the simple mathematical model that I have to deal with," he said.
"So, when I say that I haven't reached any decision yet, I'm not playing coy. It's a simple statement of fact."
Mulcair suggested the party should provide resources for a membership recruitment drive in Quebec in a bid to help level the playing field.
"The party should look at the possibility of having a membership drive in Quebec in a non-partisan way," he said.
He said the drive would not benefit any particular leadership candidate but would "compensate for the mathematical fact that Quebec is the only province that does not have a provincial wing of the NDP."
However, there's little doubt such a move would largely benefit Mulcair, a former Quebec cabinet minister who is well-regarded in the province but little known outside it.
A poll published Monday pegged support for Mulcair at 17 per cent nationally, compared with 10 per cent for party president Brian Topp, who was the first to formally declare his candidacy.
However, when Quebec was taken out of the equation, the poll suggested Mulcair's support in the rest of the country dropped to only three per cent, compared with 11 per cent for Topp.
NDP spokesman Riccardo Filippone said the party has no plans to organize a recruitment drive in Quebec. But it does plan to hire more central staff to help facilitate recruitment by leadership campaigns.
Party headquarters will produce thousands of new membership forms to distribute to the various campaigns. And, since there is no provincial wing in Quebec to help speedily process new memberships, that task will be done by central staff.
However, Filippone said the actual signing up of new members will be left to leadership campaigns, MPs and riding associations.
A source in the Topp camp said that's how it should be since the ability to sign up members is the primary test of a leadership campaign.
Rookie Quebec MP Romeo Saganash, who formally declared his candidacy last week, echoed that. He said he was well aware of the lack of members in Quebec but said it's the responsibility of leadership candidates, not the party, to recruit new members.
"It's quite a challenge and not only the Quebec candidates will have to work on that challenge for the coming months, but also the other candidates from the rest of Canada," he said.
However, two potential contenders, Peggy Nash and Pat Martin, agreed with Mulcair's call for a party-run membership drive in Quebec.
"I assume we're doing that anyway," said Nash. "If we're not doing it, we should be doing it."
Without some effort by the party to boost membership in Quebec, Martin said, "the structure of our party would actually disadvantage the voice of Quebec."
"We've got a great caucus from Quebec but now we need to build the party infrastructure to support that caucus," he added.
New Democrat MPs who take the leadership plunge will have to give up their shadow-cabinet posts. But Mulcair, the party's deputy leader and House leader, served notice Monday that he intends to make use of his high-profile parliamentary roles as long as he can.
At a news conference ostensibly called to discuss Monday's resumption of Parliament, Mulcair spent equal time on his putative leadership bid. And he made no apologies for doing so.
"I was elected on May 2 as part of the result that Jack Layton was able to obtain, which is the highest result in the history of Canada for the NDP," he said, adding that he worked "shoulder-to-shoulder" with Layton for five years.
"He asked me to be his parliamentary House leader and that's something I intend to honour for as long as possible."