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Uniting NDP's wings will test Mulcair

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MONTREAL -- Six days before the New Democratic Party leadership election, a Montreal-based volunteer for candidate Brian Topp gave an early sign on Twitter of a problem in Quebec for whoever would be the NDP's next leader.

"One of our vols is running 4 the QS nom in Westmount today," Ethan Cox tweeted, "so we're releasing most vols to support her."

That is, at a crucial time in the NDP campaign, the volunteers were being released to help one of them get a provincial nomination for the Quebec solidaire party, which is sovereignist as well as left-wing.

And now this becomes Thomas Mulcair's problem.

The first task of a new leader chosen in a contested leadership campaign is to reunite the party.

Mulcair, the new leader of the NDP, was the first choice of only 30 per cent of the members of his party who voted in the election.

And on the final ballot, 43 per cent of those voting preferred the wooden Topp -- a backroom strategizer whose lack of previous campaigning experience showed -- to Mulcair, easily the most experienced and skilled campaigner in the race.

Winning over those diehards will require skills not previously revealed by Mulcair, who carries a reputation as a divider, not a unifier.

To Mulcair, politics is a street fight. Whether against friend or foe, every debate must be won, with the opponent not only bested but beaten into submission.

That makes him, to the New Democrats who voted for him, a goon of their own to send onto the ice against Stephen Harper; burly, bearded and clad in orange like Dave (The Hammer) Schultz of the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers, the Broad Street Bullies.

It's telling, however, that among the NDP members of Parliament who have known Mulcair longest, few endorsed him to succeed the late Jack Layton.

But even if there had been no leadership campaign, even if Layton had lived, Layton would have faced another challenge to the unity of the NDP that Mulcair now faces.

The challenge is to hold together the Quebec and English-Canadian wings of the party grafted together in last year's federal election.

It's to reconcile the expectations of English Canadians with those of French Quebecers that the NDP will be a federalist Bloc Quebecois, representing Quebec's interests alone.

And it's to do it with a caucus most of whose members owe their election to Layton, not his successor.

The graft held through the leadership campaign, in which the NDP's nationalist-friendly policies on Quebec secession and language went unquestioned.

But it's significant that in the candidate "showcases" at the leadership convention in Toronto on Friday, the policies were referred to only in French, and only briefly.

The Sherbrooke Declaration on Quebec's place in Canada became the Declaration That Dared Not Speak Its Name In English.

And when its author, Pierre Ducasse, presented candidate Peggy Nash, the declaration wasn't mentioned at all.

So the NDP might be vulnerable to attempts by its adversaries to drive a wedge between either the two wings of the party or between the NDP and either English Canada or French Quebec.

When the Conservatives and the Liberals recently voted down an NDP bill to apply Bill 101's protection for French in the workplace to businesses under federal jurisdiction, it went largely unnoticed.

But what would happen if another party presented a motion in Parliament re-affirming the principle of the equality of English and French in federal jurisdictions, which the NDP's pro-French policy would violate?

And there is the problem raised by the involvement of Topp's Montreal-based volunteers with Quebec solidaire.

By the end of next year, and possibly as early as this spring, there will be a general election in Quebec, where there is no provincial NDP for the federal party to support automatically.

But some rank-and-file New Democrats in Quebec, such as the Topp volunteers, are also active in Quebec solidaire, or at least sympathize with it.

Even some MPs, such as rising star Alexandre Boulerice, have recent ties to Quebec solidaire.

But if members of a Canadian national party worked for the election of sovereignists in Quebec, it's doubtful that English-Canadian voters would understand.

So what will Mulcair do about the Quebec election? The obvious answer is to stay out of it.

That, however, might expose Mulcair to criticism in English Canada for not supporting the federalist provincial Liberal party, which he quit five years ago after a dispute with Premier Jean Charest.

And if Mulcair were unable to stop New Democrats from working for sovereignist candidates, the criticism would be much louder.


Don Macpherson is a columnist for the Montreal Gazette.


--Postmedia News

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

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