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NDP's carefully crafted pipeline policy will only face more attacks

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2015 (1742 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Moments after NDP Leader Tom Mulcair took the stage Thursday night for a rally in downtown Winnipeg, it was clear this election campaign will be unlike any other for Canada’s perennial federal electoral bridesmaid.

Mulcair had barely begun his stump speech in the presence of more than 1,000 diehard supporters when a dozen protesters began shouting their displeasure at the federal NDP’s support for the Energy East pipeline project.

Throughout Mulcair’s speech, the protesters hurled taunts at the burly NDP leader, demanding he reject any policy or project that would help move Alberta bitumen to market. Mulcair was up to the challenge, frequently firing taunts back at the protesters, a gesture that often prompted thunderous applause from the rabid NDP crowd.

And yet, it wasn’t long before the absurdity of the situation revealed itself: the leader of a social democratic, left-wing political party shouting taunts at environmental protesters and getting lusty applause for doing so.

Such is the new reality for the federal NDP, still leading the Liberals and Conservatives in most opinion polls in what is fast becoming the closest three-way electoral race in recent Canadian history. As a result, the NDP can no longer position itself as the conscience of the progressive side of the electorate without much concern about what that will do to their electoral fortunes.

This time, the NDP is in it to win it, and that is causing some awkward and unprecedented challenges.

The pipeline debate is a perfect example. Desperate for a breakthrough in Alberta, Mulcair has crafted a precariously balanced pipeline policy. The NDP now support a transnational pipeline to bring Alberta crude to eastern ports, with a pledge that any such project will undergo an intensive environmental review and oil companies will be prompted to find ways of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

The NDP love to hammer away at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for his awkward support for Bill C-51, a political deal with the devil in its own right. However, on pipelines, Mulcair has found himself in a similar predicament.

His dream of environmentally friendly pipelines is a position that puts Mulcair on the razor’s edge of a very fine policy line. Too fine, it seems, for the protesters who have attended just about every one of his campaign events.

Protester Clayton Thomas-Muller speaks with media in Winnipeg on Thursday, August 20, 2015. A speech by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to close to 1,000 NDP supporters in Winnipeg was interrupted by protesters Thursday night. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)


Protester Clayton Thomas-Muller speaks with media in Winnipeg on Thursday, August 20, 2015. A speech by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to close to 1,000 NDP supporters in Winnipeg was interrupted by protesters Thursday night. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Mulcair and the NDP should expect more of this as the election unfolds, particularly if Mulcair is somehow able to keep his front-runner status into the last third of the campaign.

More: Mulcair pledges to build Shoal Lake's Freedom Road

Without much success at the federal level, you could forgive Mulcair for not having a firm game plan for this election. Some plausible seat projections based on current poll results could produce a majority mandate for the NDP. However, the policy implications of getting there are going to be scary for many longtime New Democrats.

You can see the stress points on the NDP already. Earlier in the campaign, Mulcair promised federal funding to put an additional 2,500 police officers on Canadian streets. It’s an opening volley from the NDP to try to weaken the Conservative hold on law and order.

However, it’s also a weak salvo, a pledge that seems desperately out of date with the reality of today’s political marketplace.

Five years ago, politicians at all levels of government were promising more "boots on the streets" to combat crime. Today, many of those same politicians, particularly at the local government level, realize we don’t need more police officers.

Crime rates are down and spending money on hiring more police officers only creates enormous fiscal pressure on municipal budgets. In fact, most big cities in this country are trying to find a way of shrinking their police forces.

Pipelines and police, just two issues in a very long election campaign, are demonstrating in graphic terms the pitfalls that face any party with serious aspirations to form government. Canada is profoundly fractured along provincial and regional lines. It is difficult to find any one policy or position that plays well with voters across the country.

That is primarily why competitive federal parties have taken positions like the NDP stance on the pipeline. It would be impossible for the NDP to contemplate winning this election with a policy that rejects pipelines out of hand.

And it’s only going to get tougher for Mulcair and the NDP. If he continues to lead opinion polls, he will face increasing attacks from both the Conservatives and the Liberals. Every NDP policy will be dissected and subjected to relentless political manipulation.

However, that’s only to be expected for any party threatening to form government. A senior provincial NDP official — a top operative with more than two decades of experience in politics — agreed that their federal cousins are just now learning one of the hardest realities of big-time politics.

"All the issues get tougher," the official said, "the closer you get to government."

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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