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NDP turns page on turning other cheek

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‘My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic."

Those were the late NDP leader Jack Layton's last words to Canadians before his death on Aug. 22, 2011. They galvanized his party, moved many Canadians to tears and earned him a lasting place in Canada's political pantheon.

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But in Toronto on Saturday, facing the most ruthless and polarizing government in Canadian history, Canada's Official opposition turned the page on turning the other cheek.

With former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Thomas Mulcair as their new leader, they're going back to Parliament this week with their elbows up -- and sharpened. If Stephen Harper's Conservatives want nasty, they'll get nasty.

"Let's just say I've never been shy about going into the corners and I usually come out with the puck," Mulcair told The Canadian Press.

It may not be pretty. It may turn even more Canadians off politics, at least in the short term. But it will level the playing field. Finally, Canadians will have an Official opposition that won't, in the words of political columnist Susan Riley, be mere "puppy chow for Harper's front-bench attack dogs... Like it or not, we get two angry men -- one icy and vindictive, the other hot-headed and ungiving -- facing off across the Commons aisle."

Mulcair brings proud Quebec ancestry to the NDP. His great-great grandfather, Honore Mercier, was Quebec's ninth premier, from 1887 to 1891. A Liberal, Mercier opposed the execution of Louis Riel and initiated the idea of interprovincial conferences in 1887. He was also the first Quebec premier to defend the principle of provincial autonomy, campaigning to abolish the federal government's claimed right to veto provincial legislation.

Could this historic Liberal pedigree prompt a resolution to the ongoing debate over a merger or accommodation between Liberals and New Democrats? That elephant looms ever larger in Canada's political room, occupied as it is by three, if not four, political parties who compete, election after election, against each other for the two-thirds of voters on the centre-left.

The NDP's choice of former Quebec Liberal Mulcair highlights a mirror image -- former Ontario New Democrat Bob Rae's leadership of the federal Liberals.

In politics, as in life, there is no more bitter feud than a blood feud. Just ask the Conservatives. They spent 13 years between 1993 and 2006 watching the Liberals win three consecutive majority governments and one minority while the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform party then Canadian Alliance ritually poked each other in the eye.

Then the political tables turned. The two parties on the right buried the hatchet, joined under the banner of the Conservative party in 2004 and chose former Reform MP Stephen Harper as their leader. Two years later, the Harperites defeated a disgraced and decimated Liberal party under Paul Martin.

Since 2006, disunity among the Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc Quebecois on the centre-left has bestowed the same split-opposition gift that keeps on giving to the Harperites. The latter have won two minorities and now hold a majority, guaranteeing them government at least until 2015. Their run could extend indefinitely if the progressive majority in Canada stays fragmented.

Mulcair has ruled out outright merger with the Liberals. "It's absolutely not in the cards," he told the CBC Saturday. His approach is absorption. Here's a selection from his victory speech Saturday:

"It order to win the next election and to have our first NDP government, our party must reach beyond it's traditional base and unite all progressive forces under the NDP's banner... As we unite our party to take on a government that is dismantling the very institutions that we hold dear, we will do so without excluding or demonizing those who disagree with us. We will unite progressives, we will unite our country and together we will work towards a more just and better world."

It is significant that Mulcair is not alone in his pledge to challenge centre-left fragmentation. His runner-up, Brian Topp, was one of the key players in the aborted attempt to forge a coalition between the Liberals and the New Democrats in 2008 over the Harper budget. Topp repeatedly pledged to work towards uniting progressives across the political spectrum.

Third-place finisher Nathan Cullen made his proposal for joint nominating meetings among Liberals, New Democrats and Greens a platform plank. The NDP, he said, should not hesitate to tell voters it would be prepared to form a coalition government in the next Parliament.

With a Liberal leading the NDP and a New Democrat leading the Liberals, the progressive majority of Canadians awaits developments.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2012 A10

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