OTTAWA — Tom Mulcair is trying to turn around the NDP’s flagging fortunes as he gears up for a federal election within nine months, shaking up his office and campaign team and stepping up his attacks on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
The NDP leader announced Thursday that he’s appointed a new chief of staff — Alain Gaul, a Montreal lawyer who served as Mulcair’s chief of staff when he was Quebec environment minister. Gaul replaces Raoul Gebert, who directed Mulcair’s leadership campaign and who will continue to serve as an adviser to the leader.
Mulcair also announced he’s bringing in some veterans to shore up the NDP campaign team.
Brad Lavigne, one of the masterminds behind the so-called orange wave that swept Quebec in 2011 and vaulted the NDP into official Opposition status for the first time, will serve as senior campaign adviser.
Michael Balagus, who has led successful provincial NDP campaigns in Manitoba, will handle the federal party’s campaign in Ontario. He has been chief of staff to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath since last fall, attempting to reboot her leadership after disappointing results for the NDP in last spring’s provincial election.
After the 2011 federal breakthrough, New Democrats were confident they were poised to replace Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in the next election. But they were rudely awakened when the Liberals, left on their apparent death bed in 2011, revived under Trudeau’s leadership.
Since Trudeau took the helm 21 months ago, the Liberals have been leading in most opinion polls, followed closely by the Conservatives. The NDP has fallen back to a distant third, hovering at around 20 per cent support.
Mulcair has consistently out-performed Trudeau in the House of Commons, and since last fall he’s been unveiling key platform planks in a bid to showcase his policy depth, in contrast to Trudeau’s refusal to release a platform before the election campaign.
But nothing has worked so far to boost NDP fortunes. The perception that the party is in trouble has been fuelled by dismal results in a series of byelections and by the sight of veteran New Democrat MPs, like Libby Davies and Yvon Godin, throwing in the towel.
In the biggest blow, Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault, who had been caucus chairman, stunned his colleagues last month when he quit federal politics and announced his intention to run for the Ontario Liberals in a provincial byelection.
Kicking off a two-day caucus retreat Thursday, Mulcair delivered a campaign-style speech aimed at reassuring and rallying his troops for the coming election.
Mulcair trashed the government’s economic record, arguing that middle class families are falling further behind and maintaining that only the NDP has the experience and policy depth to replace the Conservatives.
“Over the coming weeks and months we’ll invite Canadians to ask themselves which leader has the experience to defeat Mr. Harper and the plan to repair the damage he’s done,” Mulcair said.
He emphasized his own 35 years in public service, including serving as a Quebec cabinet minister and his background as the second of 10 kids born to a middle-class family that “worked hard, played by the rules and lived within our means.”
And he contrasted that with Trudeau’s upbringing, implying that the Liberal leader was born into privilege as the eldest son of a former prime minister and believes “he can just inherit power without proposing a thing.”
“Whether it’s meeting with premiers to work on the future of our federation or with world leaders to discuss global economic opportunities or terrorist threats, being prime minister is not an entry-level job,” Mulcair said.
As they gathered for the meeting, New Democrat MPs were upbeat, giving no sign they’re losing confidence in Mulcair or their dream of winning power.
Polls showing the Liberals leading and the NDP lagging are irrelevant, Toronto MP Craig Scott maintained, arguing that only once an election is actually called will voters begin to seriously consider the options.
When they do, he predicted they’ll conclude Mulcair is “two to three to four levels above Justin Trudeau in terms of capabilities, experience, intelligence, everything else.”
On Trudeau, Scott said voters will conclude, “He is not capable of being prime minister.”
Godin said he remains confident the NDP can form government after the next election, despite his own decision not to seek re-election. He said that was strictly a personal decision that he needed a break after 18 years as an MP.
Mulcair reiterated his promises to roll back the retirement age to 65 from 67, introduce a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and a $5-billion-a-year plan to create one million child care spaces that parents could access for $15 a day.
To pay for those promises, Mulcair has said he’d hike corporate taxes. He added Thursday that he’d also scrap the government’s recently introduced income-splitting plan, which allows couples with young kids to split their income for tax savings — at a cost of about $2.4 billion a year to the federal treasury.
Income splitting is unfair and would benefit only the wealthiest 15 per cent of families, Mulcair said.
At the same time, Mulcair said he would not roll back recently announced boosts to the universal child care benefit.