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Thomas Mulcair's 'Dutch Disease' Strategy May Be Paying Off For The NDP

When Thomas Mulcair became leader of the NDP, he promised a structured opposition that could take on the Conservative government. His strategy appears to be working.

Poll after poll has put the New Democrats neck-and-neck or ahead of the Conservatives, as yesterday’s Harris-Decima poll indicated. That survey pegged NDP support at 34 per cent, four points up on the Conservatives.

While some of this can be attributed to the honeymoon period that normally comes after a party selects a new leader, there might be more to the NDP’s good fortune.

Undoubtedly, Mulcair is benefitting from a series of bad headlines for the Conservatives. While any one of these stories might not have been enough to seriously dent the Tories’ support, the cumulative effect appears to have been quite damaging.

But on the other side of the aisle, the New Democrats are doing some of the right things.

Ever since becoming leader – and during the leadership race as well – Mulcair has spoken of the dreaded ‘Dutch disease’ and how it can be remedied by limiting the expansion of the Alberta oilsands in a "sustainable" way. His position has come under some scrutiny, both in the national media and from western politicians (including Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall).

Dutch disease refers to when a commodity boom leads to strong currency which can badly hurt manufacturing exports.

While Dutch disease is a real economic phenomenon that many economists would agree is happening in Canada, others would deny it is even taking place.

The average Canadian has little interest in the nuances of these economic debates. Nevertheless, the economy is still the most important issue for voters, and with Mulcair making an economic argument for the sustainable development of the oilsands he hits a stronger note than he would if his plea were based on environmental idealism.

By focusing on the danger Dutch disease poses to the manufacturing sector, Mulcair boosts his appeal in Ontario, the province in which the NDP needs to grow to form government. In addition, by calling for the sustainable development of the oilsands rather than their abandonment, Mulcair strikes a tone that can resonate with (particularly eastern) Canadians who are no big fans of their environmental toll but recognize the industry’s importance.

This is part of Mulcair’s strategy to make the NDP appear more level-headed and responsible. By taking this approach, Mulcair squeezes the Liberals out of the political debate by removing an excuse to support a third party. Mulcair is framing as the NDP alone against the Conservatives.

So far, that is a fight the Conservatives are losing. Against a Liberal opposition, the Tories always had the Liberal record in their back pocket for rebuttals, and Canadians could shrug their shoulders and conclude that the two parties were the same.

Without a record, attacks on the New Democrats are harder to land. Though the Conservatives can stoke fears of the unknown — and the lack of experience on the opposition benches is indeed a powerful argument in the Tory deck — by 2015 Canadians might be open to something new. And in Quebec, where the NDP dominates, any attacks coming from the unpopular Conservative leader don’t register at all.

Where the NDP has a record, those governments are generally well-regarded: Darrell Dexter in Nova Scotia, Gary Doer and Greg Selinger in Manitoba, and Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert in Saskatchewan. The provincial NDP is leading in the polls in B.C. as well. Ontario’s NDP government is not fondly remembered, but that government was headed by Bob Rae. Any attack on its history is also an attack on the Liberal leader, deflecting the blow.

Mulcair has capitalized on Conservative troubles and put his party in an ideal position. Less than two months after taking over the NDP, his strategy is hitting the right note. Only some 40 more months to go.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.

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