ALMA, Que. — There was genuine glee in Tom Mulcair's face as he took questions Thursday about what NDP strategists hope will turn into a gift from the electoral gods in Quebec and perhaps the rest of the country.
The resignation of Liberal campaign co-chairman Dan Gagnier has given the NDP leader the opportunity to remind voters in the province about the S-words — the sponsorship scandal.
The sting of having their politics portrayed as corrupt resonates deeply with Quebec voters and Mulcair, who has seen his party's power base in the province weakened by Justin Trudeau's Liberals, eagerly made the link for them at a small rally in this picturesque Saguenay community.
"I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for everyone in Canada, including here in Quebec, to remember that this is the same old Liberal party of the sponsorship scandal," he told a room full of supporters.
The scandal over federal advertising and the resulting Gomery Commission tainted Quebec Liberals and Mulcair was quick to invoke the names of former prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, who have campaigned with Trudeau.
"Quebecers remember the sponsorship scandal and now they're being reminded it really is still the same old Liberal party. They can try to put a fresh face on it, but behind the scenes it's still the same old gang pulling the same old tricks."
In order to hammer home the point, the party launched attack ads on Quebec radio Thursday hoping to get the attention of voters.
The twin benefit, in the eyes of NDP strategists, is the email that led to Gagnier's resignation involved the Energy East Pipeline, which has developed into a lightning rod issue in the province. It's a controversy that even took a bite out of Mulcair before the campaign, when he was accused of holding contradictory positions on the $12-billion proposed development, which would transport 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta to refineries and port terminals in Eastern Canada.
Trudeau has not committed to the project, saying he wants regulators to study it.
"Sending strategic advice to TransCanada Pipelines on how to get the Energy East Pipeline through when Justin Trudeau has been saying it's a question of social licence? He's already given the Liberal licence. There wasn't going to be any debate or discussion about it," Mulcair said.
"It was going to go through. That's the truth that has come out with just a few days left in this campaign."
Until mid-September, the NDP appeared to have momentum and was polling ahead of both the Liberals and Conservatives, but the campaign has faltered with a series of recent surveys putting them on track for third-party status after Monday's vote.
The drop in support is also reflected in the party's numbers in Quebec. And conjuring up the sponsorship scandal has the potential of suppressing the Liberal vote in the province, say NDP strategists.
The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the uncertainty over its impact has also given the NDP a stick with which to hammer the Conservatives, possibly arresting the slide among its traditional left-wing base that appears increasingly ready to support Trudeau.
Mulcair took that message straight into the backyard of a prominent Tory cabinet minister on Thursday. The New Democrats say the newly rejigged riding of Lac St. Jean is up for grabs and Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel is vulnerable.
Opposing TPP could find a receptive audience among the forestry and mine workers in the Saguenay region, where unemployment is running almost 1.5 percentage points ahead of the national rate.
He says the TPP is a missed opportunity for the forestry sector and it could have been used as a venue to renew access to the U.S. softwood lumber market.
The Conservatives offered all of the opposition parties a technical briefing about the agreement on Friday, but Mulcair declined and continued to demand the release of the full text of the deal.
"I can't agree to a private briefing that leaves Canadians in the dark," Mulcair wrote in a letter to Stephen Harper, released late Thursday. "This is a decision that affects all Canadians and every Canadian deserves the facts."
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