Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP, Liberals create chance to get gains over Conservatives

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OTTAWA -- Most people likely spent more time on the weekend wondering if spring will ever come than thinking about politics.

But in Montreal and Ottawa, the NDP and Liberals were embarking on changes that could mark a turning point in Canadian political history, with a new confidence instilled in both parties looking ahead to the 2015 election.

Or it could just be another blip that sees the centre-left vote in Canada divided and the governing Conservatives happily entrenched as the new natural governing party.

The Liberals, of course, elected Justin Trudeau as their new leader. The 41-year-old Montrealer assumes the helm of a party that has mountains to climb if they are to be a factor come 2015. Trudeau has his own mountains to climb to prove he is more than just a good-looking guy with name recognition and a certain charisma lacking in other national party leaders at the moment.

But his presence at the party helm at the very least has changed the political scene for the moment. Now it depends on what he does with it.

The NDP, at the same time, was voting to change how the party defines itself, shedding an old definition based on shunning capitalism and socialism in favour of a more inclusive identity party brass hope will appeal to a broader spectrum of Canadians.

The vote passed by a wide margin of 960 votes to 188, although that meant nearly 850 delegates, or 42 per cent, abstained from the vote. So while it was a big margin of victory, it also was telling that a lot of people may be taking a wait-and-see approach.

But the change, which the NDP has been trying to make for three conventions now, signals a party that seems to understand its desire to win government means it has to appeal to more people than the NDP diehards.

"We're reaching out beyond our traditional base," leader Tom Mulcair said after the convention.

However, even Mulcair noted few Canadians read the NDP preamble, so this move alone isn't going to do it.

The NDP will have to prove with its policies more than its preamble, whether it is an option Canadians will put into government. (And the Conservatives will do everything they can to prove the NDP hasn't changed its spots, new preamble or no new preamble).

The Conservatives went through a similar exercise in 2005, using a party convention to try to move the party away from the more contentious socially conservative views that had helped keep it from winning in 2004. Less than a year later, Stephen Harper would lead the Conservatives to their first election win since 1988, and the party then improved its seat count in 2008 and 2011.

But the Conservatives did that mainly by uniting the right in Canada, ending the years of vote-splitting between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance which helped elect three successive Liberal majorities.

Now it's the Conservatives benefiting from a split on the left. In 2011, about 60 per cent of voters didn't choose the Conservatives, but split between four parties -- the NDP, Liberals, Bloc and Greens -- 40 per cent is enough for a majority.

The NDP and Liberals have made clear in their leadership choices co-operation with the other is not going to happen, at least at the moment.

The NDP rejected the idea of co-operation last year when the party didn't elect the only leadership candidate proposing it. Mulcair made clear in his speech on Saturday the NDP will have a candidate in every riding.

The Liberals rejected the idea of co-operation Sunday, choosing Trudeau over B.C. MP Joyce Murray. Trudeau has made clear co-operating with the NDP will mean electing the NDP. Murray wanted to have single candidates for the NDP, Green and Liberals in 2015 for a one-time push to sweep the Conservatives out of power.

Right now, both the Liberals and NDP seem focused on attacking Harper and the Conservatives. Mulcair barely mentioned the Liberals in his speech Saturday, and has dismissed all polls showing his party lagging.

But expect that to change before the next election because there really isn't room for the NDP and Liberals to ignore each other if either wants to legitimately challenge the Conservatives come 2015.

If they are not going to co-operate, it will likely be no holds barred. Expect some of the nastiest politics Canadians have ever seen in the next two years.

Brace yourselves.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2013 A5

History

Updated on Monday, April 15, 2013 at 9:07 AM CDT: corrects headline

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