03/18/2013 12:12 EDT | Updated 05/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Media Bites: Will Tom Mulcair Ever Grow a Personality?


With so much talk of a Justin Trudeau-led Liberal revival in the news lately, it's easy to forget that Canada already has a reasonably successful left-of-centre political party. You know, the one with 100 seats in the House of Commons. N-D-something? Led by what's-his-face?

Though we're now almost a year into the Thomas Mulcair reign, it's remarkable how difficult it remains to summarize the guy. Even by Canadian standards, Tom's an oddly forgettable figure. The whole thing evokes memories of Harry Plinkett's famous YouTube review of Star Wars: Episode I.

Describe Han Solo, Harry asks his pals. Sure, they reply, "roguish," "charming," "surly" etc. Now do Queen Amidala, he continues. "Um..." they say.

If strong characters are the root of compelling stories, then Mr. Lucas had clearly fallen off his game, just as the post-Layton New Democrats have with their uninspired sequel.

Don't buy it? Try playing Plinkett game with Canadian politicians. Stephen Harper? Cold, stubborn, bossy, practical. Justin Trudeau? Naive, charming, upbeat, eloquent. Tom Mulcair? Um...

Does "bearded" count?

Presumably theorizing that their man's absence of personality must be tied to his absence of profile, the NDP sent Mr. Mulcair to Washington last week in an attempt to raise it. Sure, Thomas Mulcair, middling parliamentary leader might be easily overlooked, but how about Thomas Mulcair, continental statesman! Striding into the global spotlight is always a good way to emphasize your strengths, downplay your weaknesses, and play up your principles.

Unless you don't have any, that is.

Tom's back home now, but judging from the press reviews, we still don't know the guy any better than before he left. Headlines describe the visit as more confusing than educational.

As the internet meme people might put it, Mulcair had one job in America: express a clear opinion on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. And he botched it. "The most contentious bilateral issue in a decade," in the words of Tim Harper from the Toronto Star, and we still don't know where the NDP stands.

Just ask CTV's poor Kevin Newman, who tried so hard to suss out some closure from the NDP boss during a homecoming interview yesterday.

"Do you support," asked Kevin slowly, as one might when interrogating a five-year-old who forgot where he hid daddy's car keys, "TransCanada's current bid to build Keystone XL?"

I support lots of things, said Mulcair. "This pipeline reflects Conservative priorities."

Alright look Tom, said Newman after a bit more back-and-forth, "I'm going to assume you oppose it unless you tell me otherwise" (no doubt resisting the urge to add, "blink once for yes and twice for no").

"What you should assume is that the NDP will take care of Canada's energy needs for the future," replied Tom. And the sound of foreheads being smacked echoed across the land.

In fairness to Mulcair, his ambiguity wasn't always that ambiguous. On Tuesday he said he "agreed" with a recent editorial in the New York Times opposing Keystone, and on Wednesday he added that the pipe would cost Canadians jobs, which would be "a bad thing for Canada."

But then again, in past months he's also conceded that the NDP is no enemy of oil sands development, and and that pipelines can be a great job creator. Just not necessarily Keystone. Maybe.

"If you find all this confusing you're not alone" writes Kelly McParland in the National Post, as it's a cynical, contorted position that conforms to no consistent principle -- leftist, green, or otherwise.

If Tom wants to pretend to be an environmentalist that's fine, says Kelly, but then he has to accept that "the environmental movement has dedicated itself to shutting the oil sands" which is nowhere near the Mulcair position, despite the impression he gave Nancy Pelosi. And if he wants to pretend to be a friend of the working man and keep pipe-building jobs in Canada that's fine too, but then he's gotta make peace with the fact that one of the anti-Keystone set's "main arguments is that very few jobs would in fact be created" from such projects.

So Tom does have a position, it's just just got a couple flaws. Or, in the less charitable description of the Calgary Herald's Stephen Ewart, logical gaps "big enough to run a pipeline through."

Character counts in politics, and not just the moral kind. Voters support politicians not only because they like what they promise, but because they're developed an affinity for who they are -- ideally a steady person possessing stable characteristics. The press shares this affinity, since any man or woman with a clearly-defined political persona and a predictable set of likes and dislikes is vastly more fun to discuss and cover than some ethereal opportunist whose every opinion is focus-grouped slurry and every answer is an artful dodge.

Though the NDP gets a lot of credit for having too much principle -- the party that's trying to kill the cat when the others are merely debating its color, as Tommy Douglas used to say -- Opposition Leader Mulcair's weird aversion to embracing a unapologetically oppositional tone towards something as controversial and polarizing as the Harper government's pipeline projects says a lot about just how boringly politics-as-usual his party is getting in its era of success.

That success, incidentally, was the product of a character of truly Hollywood proportions. Or at least CBC ones.

Who's going to watch the Thomas Mulcair movie?

10 Little-Known Mulcair Facts