How deep is the mistrust and hostility between Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau?
It’s not just an idle thought plucked from the annals of the Canadian political soap opera.
It could determine this country’s government this autumn.
Voters may find it madness to be discussing a potential coalition government seven months before an expected election, but NDP Leader Mulcair has again pushed the concept to the forefront of political debate in this country.
Liberal Leader Trudeau won’t dance.
The two men have never discussed the matter.
They have never met in the same room, face-to-face, on any issue and their last and only direct communication appears to have been a congratulatory call from Mulcair when Trudeau won the Liberal leadership almost two years ago.
Their mutual mistrust came to the surface when Trudeau publicly ousted two caucus members over sexual harassment charges brought by unnamed NDP MPs last autumn, giving neither the party nor the NDP women a courtesy heads up.
New Democrats accused Liberals of doing it again this week, leaking the final caucus expulsion of Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews to CTV News without any nod to the NDP MPs, a charge Liberals have denied.
In trying to prod Trudeau on the coalition question, Mulcair takes the bad blood back to 2008, the last coalition effort, one that predated the leadership of either man.
Mulcair was part of the NDP negotiating team and he has been reminding supporters he was prepared to install Stéphane Dion as prime minister to oust Conservative Stephan Harper.
This time, he is again trying to portray himself as the man with the loftier goal of ridding the country of Prime Minister Harper — any which way — while Trudeau is interested only in his own fortunes.
Why is he pushing this button so early?
The party is trying to make it comfortable for Canadians to vote NDP secure in the knowledge that Mulcair will do everything he can to remove Harper.
He has to provide that comfort level or run the risk that New Democrats will join one-and-done Conservative voters from 2011 and turn to Trudeau and his Liberals as the only anti-Conservative option this autumn.
New Democrats also believe raising the issue now inoculates them during the campaign, making it old news for Mulcair and throwing the focus back to Trudeau when the question is inevitably raised.
But for years, New Democrats have publicly pretended they were preparing to take power at the outset of the campaign, no matter how ridiculous such a pronouncement sounded.
Mulcair is arguably the first NDP leader who could ever make the claim without provoking snickers, regardless of where he sits in the polls.
He will enter a campaign with more incumbents than any other New Democrat leader before him and will be the first to try to use official Opposition as a springboard to power.
Instead, poking Trudeau on the coalition question is essentially the NDP leader saying to voters, “We can’t form a government on our own,” no matter how he couches the argument.
Liberal insiders say Trudeau will not get sucked into a disingenuous game with Mulcair.
If the NDP leader were serious, they say, he would seek a meeting with their leader rather than take the issue public, complete with charges of Liberal duplicity.
Mulcair’s position on the Clarity Act and Quebec’s future makes any co-operation a non-starter, they say. Positions on both sides have evolved.
Before his leadership bid, Trudeau did muse about electoral co-operation with the NDP.
He shut that down when he sought the leadership.
Co-operation “leads to Thomas Mulcair as prime minister and that’s not what I’m interested in,” he said when pushed in a debate.
Mulcair was even more blunt after winning his leadership. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he dismissed a coalition with a party that, he said, proved it could not be trusted in 2008.
“N. O. The no is categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable. It’s no. End of story. Full stop,” he said.
There is no doubt Mulcair is aiming to become the first New Democrat leader to taste power, in whatever form.
Trudeau and his team like to ignore the NDP leader, thinking him flailing and desperate and not worthy of their time.
Mulcair and his team don’t respect Trudeau and believe he is the beneficiary of unearned media attention.
Some day this autumn they may have to put this behind them.
Electoral math could put them in the same room facing a big decision.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.