POLITICS
09/10/2014 09:40 EDT | Updated 09/10/2014 10:59 EDT

Mulcair Looks To Mimic Charest's 2003 Quebec Campaign

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EDMONTON — Thomas Mulcair is looking to his and former Quebec premier Jean Charest’s past to plot out the NDP’s election strategy for 2015.

Mulcair plans to mimic Charest’s winning 2003 provincial election campaign, NDP insiders told The Huffington Post Canada. The NDP leader sat in the Quebec National Assembly from 1994 to 2007 and became environment minister after the Liberals’ win.

Some political scientists, however, aren’t sure Charest’s campaign holds much in common with the coming contest between New Democrats, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

Mulcair’s team believes their leader faces many of the same challenges Charest had — the provincial Liberal leader was unpopular and the national media were preoccupied with well-liked, young and untested Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) leader Mario Dumont. To circumvent the Quebec press gallery and take his message to the people, Charest released a policy platform several months ahead of the election and toured the regions of Quebec — one small town after another — selling his plan.

NDP MP Robert Aubin, the chair of the party’s Quebec caucus, told HuffPost that that is precisely what Mulcair intends to do.

“We are going to share our vision of development with Canadians throughout the next year rather than concentrate our proposals during an election campaign that is only five weeks long and in which people are bombarded with information and don’t have the time or the means to weigh the options and make informed choices,” Aubin told HuffPost Tuesday from Edmonton’s Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, where the party is holding its summer caucus.

During the course of the year, the choice between which party will make the best replacement for Harper’s government will become clear, he said.

“[While] the NDP rests on a solid base, the Liberal party, at this point, seems to soar above the clouds. It’s all about: ‘I love Canada.’ I’m summing that up, but at the same time, there isn’t much to sum up.”

When you compare the concrete policy positions the NDP has taken on employment insurance, on returning eligibility for Old Age Security to 65 from 67, on putting federal surplus money towards health care after negotiations with the provinces, people see a noticeably different vision, Aubin said.

The MP from Trois-Rivières, Que., said he didn't want to compare Trudeau to Dumont, "but in the case of Justin, he makes a nice image."

"It's like the difference between a photograph on the cover of a magazine and the serious article within it. Obviously, we'd prefer to have both, the article and the cover,” he said, perhaps an obscure reference to the fact that Trudeau was recently on the cover of Maclean’s, while an interview with Mulcair failed to garner the same prominence.

“I often tell my constituents who speak to me about Justin: 'Yes, Justin Trudeau around the table of the G20? And then, suddenly, there is a moment of suspension in the conversation and people take the time to think. Yes, Justin Trudeau when the president of the United States calls to speak to the Canadian prime minister. You want Justin to answer? Even when they really like Justin, they tell me: Yeah, well, maybe he is not ready.

“Well, no, he is absolutely not ready.”

A senior NDP strategist joked Tuesday that they had spent the previous 48 hours trying to find a slogan similar to Charest's 2003 campaign that wasn't a complete ripoff.

Charest ran with the motto: "We are ready."

Trudeau's slogan, so far, is "Getting ready to lead."

The Conservatives are currently running with: "Better off with Harper."

NDP House Leader Peter Julian told reporters the party will be announcing new policy every week that will contrast Mulcair with Trudeau — who, he suggested, lacks substance.

“When time comes around for people to actually mark their ‘X,’ those are the kinds of considerations that Canadians are going to be thinking about,” he said.

Antonia Maioni, a McGill University political science professor, said Charest employed a two-pronged strategy in 2003 after falling flat during the 1998 Quebec election.

Charest got on the bus — much like Mulcair, who spent part of this summer criss-crossing Quebec — trying to change his image from the ‘Captain Canada’ posterboy to someone who was more in tune with Quebecers’ concerns, she said. “The tournée was about that.”

“The ADQ was on the rise, so there was another shiny new thing out there,” Maioni said. “Mario Dumont and the ADQ were actually making a dent and getting quite good play moving into the 2003 election. So Charest had to … appear to be a premier-in-waiting.”

The second part of Charest’s strategy, Maioni said, was to focus the campaign on a limited number of issues .

“They talked about health care a lot. They focused on the same issues all the time. They were very on message.”

Putting a big emphasis on a policy platform — something parties rarely do — helped Charest portray himself as the government in waiting, she said, which is what the NDP is currently trying to do. But that may be pretty much where the similarities end, she said.

At the end of the day, the Quebec Liberals held a trump card: Dumont had been part of the “yes” campaign during the 1995 referendum.

“[They] framed it as: A vote for the ADQ was a vote for the PQ, and so if you want change, vote for us,” she said.

Concordia political scientist Bruce Hicks said the 2003 election was really more about the Parti Québécois going down in defeat than it was about the Liberals’ smart decision to release their platform early.

After Jacques Parizeau repeated his referendum-night comments about money and the ethnic vote, sovereignty suddenly become the issue in the middle of the campaign, Hicks said, adding that up until then — well into the campaign — the polls showed the Liberals headed for defeat.

“I don’t know that there are brilliant lessons to learn from 2003, except the stars aligned and Charest was able to win. Maybe that is what the NDP is really hoping for — that suddenly something will change” and their polling numbers will suddenly soar.

While Dumont and Trudeau are both inexperienced, Hicks said, he doesn’t think the comparison is relevant, because people don’t believe that Trudeau is an unknown quality.

“The Conservative attack ads haven’t resonated, people don’t believe that he is in over his head,” he said. “So it is a cute analogy, but Trudeau is leading a Liberal party not an upstart party. His party has been around since Alexander Mackenzie. It’s wishful thinking, I think, on [the NDP’s] part to see Trudeau as a Mario Dumont.”

Hicks said the one positive thing about Mulcair’s strategy is that by putting emphasis on the platform early, the NDP draws attention to the fact that Trudeau has been reticent to give details about policy on most things, saying “wait for the election.”

“They create a contrast and they are getting media attention from it, which they have had a great deal of difficulty getting,” Hicks said. “[But] it’s only smart in the short term, because we are not going to be talking about the NDP platform for a year and half … We’ll only be talking about it as long as it is new, and then we’ll have moved on.

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