05/17/2012 12:27 EDT | Updated 07/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Mulcair: Rising in the East, Setting in the West?

2012-04-27-mediabitesreal.jpgIn this week's editorial pages we got to meet Thomas Muclair, SCARY ENEMY OF NATIONAL UNITY when he railed against the Alberta oil industry. All the western premiers quickly fired back, calling Mulcair's grasp of economics "tenuous and "goofy." But some are conceding that Muclair is being pretty damn "clever" in rejecting one of the dominant pieces of conventional wisdom in post-Harper Canadian politics: that you need the West to win.

Remember the days when the press was gleefully brimming with anticipation over how Stephen Harper's crack team of character assassins would choose to "define" Thomas Muclair? Would he target the new NDP leader's temper? Or maybe his party-swapping? His French citizenship? His beard?

Well, it seems at some point the punditocracy got so sick of waiting they decided to do the PM's work for him. Thus, in this week's editorial pages we got to meet Thomas Muclair, SCARY ENEMY OF NATIONAL UNITY.

This brand was first forged two weeks ago, when Mulcair was a guest on the Evan Solomon Show with Evan Solomon and railed against the Alberta oil industry, which he claimed was inflating the Canadian dollar to dangerous heights and crippling the nation's eastern manufacturing sector in the process. As Solomon noted, Mulcair wrote a whole 2,000-word thesis about this correlation for Policy Options magazine back when he was just a lowly MP. And he still stands by it!

"It's by definition the Dutch disease," said Mulcair, in that machine-gun delivery of his. "The Canadian dollar is being held artificially high which is fine if you're going to Walt Disney World but not so good if you want to sell your manufactured products because the American client -- most of the time -- can no longer afford to buy it." This hurts "not only Ontario," he declared, but Quebec and New Brunswick too, not to mention "other places."

Well, the oily provinces weren't having any of that. All the western premiers (sans whoever's running Manitoba these days) quickly fired back, calling Mulcair's grasp of economics "tenuous" and "goofy," which in turn prompted the man himself to dismiss this conservative triumvirate as nothing more than a bunch of Hermes-style "messengers" for Harper, Canada's jealous Zeus.

So. Civil war inevitable?

Maybe, says Jon Ibbitson at the Globe. Making it clear where his allegiances lie, Ibbitson says you can't pit "the natural-resources sector against the manufacturing sector, the growing, flourishing New Canada against the troubled older economy," without courting "polarization and paralysis and maybe even the breakup of the country." Not that he's completely without sympathy for the NDP boss, however. In Canadian politics, "invariably, success involves pitting group against group," after all. So what makes Mulcair's politically opportunistic exploitation of East-West tension that different from Stephen Harper's strategically brilliant manipulation of West-East anxiety?

Susan Riley at the Ottawa Citizen is super into this. Rather than going on about "Dutch disease," which no one really understands anyway, she says we should be more concerned with "Canadian disease, a tendency to endlessly replay wrenching national unity feuds while real problems fester." 

Both she and Ibbitson agree that there's actually a great deal of polite consensus on the future of the oilsands among people who actually matter -- particularly the need to balance economic development with environmental sustainability -- but the politicians are doing their best to mask this "growing common ground" in favour of reviving petty geographic feuds from the Max Headroom era. The Calgary Herald editorial board is equally cute and snippy, with their diagnosis being a fatal case of "Mulcair disease," whose symptoms include being a big lying liar about just how much Eastern Canada is actually suffering from the "production of Alberta crude" -- 65,520 oilsands-related jobs by 2035, by their count.

But maybe Thomas Mulcair is diseased like a fox!Michael Den Tandt in the National Post, no great NDP fan at the best of times, respectfully concedes that Muclair is being pretty damn "clever" in rejecting one of the dominant pieces of conventional wisdom in post-Harper Canadian politics: that you need the West to win.

For all their much-vaunted growth, after all, in the updated House of Commons "the three Prairie provinces combined will hold just 62 seats -- less than half Ontario's tally," meaning that so long as the NDP leader "keeps his stronghold in Quebec, and establishes a solid beachhead in Ontario, dominated by Toronto, Mulcair can put together a winning formula -- just as Stephen Harper did by uniting Alberta, rural and suburban Ontario."

In such a regionally polarized universe, the premier of Alberta may seem like an unlikely figure to serve as peacemaker, but that's just what Tim Harper at the Toronto Star expects Allison Redford to do, dubbing her the right woman to "lead the way in bringing down the rhetoric."

She's been playing the game longer than anyone else, after all, traveling all over the country and planet spouting carefully focus-grouped facts, figures and talking points designed to portray Canada's oil sector in the most flattering light, and depict her province as a happy team player at the centre of a wealth-sharing national energy policy -- er, plan

In the Muclair pile-on, press accounts have made much of the fact that her insults were "far milder" than those of the other premiers -- or even members of her own cabinet -- which is basically the closest you get to a compliment when provincial egos are on the line. Some right-wingers are in a tizzy as a result, but that's a typical Tuesday in Alberta.

With the head of the New Democratic Party now scheduled to take a walkabout tour of Fort McMurray sometime in the coming weeks, Redford might just be the perfect person to help Tommy with some damage control.

She was supposed to be her province's first NDP premier, after all.