IN THE NEWS ~ NDP call Trudeau Harper-light'

Firmly in third place for months, New Democrats vow to fight hard to regain momentum.

Bea Vongdouangchanh, The Hill Times.

NDP MPs say party leader Tom Mulcair, whose party is in third place in public opinion polls, will have a much higher profile in the coming months and will fight hard to regain the party's momentum after winning more than 100 seats in 2011. But they're also portraying Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as an empty-headed celebrity politician, calling him "Harper-light," and say, unlike Mr. Trudeau, their leader has substance.

NDP MPs, who will meet in Saskatchewan for their summer caucus meeting this week, also say they're not worried about public opinion polls because the election is two years away and they are eyeing the gains they can make in Western Canada.

"I'd say what the mood of the caucus would be is very determined. We're determined to defeat [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper in 2015," NDP MP Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.), the party's caucus chair, told The Hill Times last week. "Western Canada is going to be the key for the next election. Across Western Canada, it's a straight-up fight between the NDP and the Conservatives. We know that."

Mr. Julian said it's one of the main reasons the party chose to hold the caucus meeting in Saskatoon, Sask., from Sept. 9-11, a province in which the NDP hold no seats. Thirteen of Saskatchewan's 14 seats are represented by Conservatives and one by a Liberal. Mr. Julian said with the new redrawn boundaries in Saskatchewan, about half the seats are now "in play" for the NDP.

"Because we have an electoral map that actually reflects communities of interest in Saskatchewan with a number of urban ridings, all of a sudden you're looking at least half the ridings being in play between the NDP and the Conservatives," he said.

In the 2011 election campaign, the NDP came in second place in all Conservative-held ridings in Saskatchewan. It came in third place in the Liberal-held Wascana, Sask., riding.

In Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Sask., NDP candidate Nettie Wiebe lost to Conservative MP Kelly Block by 1.8 per cent of votes, or 538 votes.

In another close riding in the last election, NDP candidate Lawrence Joseph lost to Conservative MP Rob Clarke in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Sask., by 3.6 per cent and 789 votes.

And, in Palliser, Sask., Noah Evanchuk lost to Conservative MP Ray Boughen by 2.3 per cent, or by 766 votes. Mr. Evanchuk has announced that he will run again for the nomination in the new riding of Regina-Lewvan.

Mitch Wexler, a principal at Politrain Consulting who closely followed the redistribution process and has analyzed the final proposed new boundaries, told The Hill Times recently that the NDP could win two currently Conservative-held Saskatchewan ridingsRegina-Lewvan and Saskatoon Westbased on 2011 election results.

The NDP has been stuck in third place in public opinion polling for months, but the quickest way for it to improve its political fortunes is for Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to make mistakes because polling trend lines show that as the Liberals go down, the NDP goes up, Nik Nanos, president and CEO of Nanos Research, told The Hill Times.

Mr. Nanos said the Liberals are leading in all regions of the country except the Prairies, where the NDP is hosting their summer caucus meeting this week.

Mr. Nanos also said that he wasn't surprised that the Liberals are in the lead, overall, as most polls have shown that trend. Mr. Nanos noted, however, that it's not necessarily because Mr. Trudeau is doing a particularly good job, even though he came in first in Nanos' polling for "leader with the best vision for Canada's future," and "most trustworthy leader," but rather the Conservatives are taking a hit on the Senate spending scandal and ethics issues.

"There's a tendency to talk about the Liberals doing things right,' in terms of explaining their recent popularity among the polls, but I think the reality is this is still the Conservatives being punished for issues related to the Senate controversy," Mr. Nanos told The Hill Times. "For people who have tried to make the connection between Justin Trudeau's comments related to pot legalization and his success, they're not founded in fact because in the same survey that we ask Canadians, What their most important national issue of concern was?' only six, that's less than one per cent, said that pot decriminalization was an important national issue of concern."

Mr. Nanos said the Liberals have been gaining support from both Conservative and NDP supporters.

"The interesting thing is when you look at the trend line over the last eight months or so it has been generally negative for both the New Democrats and the Conservatives, while it's been generally positive for the Liberals. So the Liberals have been picking up from both the New Democrats and the Conservatives," he said. "For the New Democrats and Thomas Mulcair, what they need to improve is for Justin Trudeau to make mistakes. That's actually the shortest path to improving the political fortunes of the New Democrats. When we look, from a long-term perspective, when we look at the NDP and the Liberal trend line, they're almost perfect mirror images of themselves. Whenever the NDP gains, the Liberals are usually the first party to lose and vice versa."

The NDP has been polling third, however, since Mr. Trudeau was elected Liberal leader in April. At that time, an Ipsos Reid poll showed the NDP had 27 per cent support, down from a year earlier when Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) was elected NDP leader. After Mr. Mulcair was elected leader, his party had 35 per cent support, tied with the Conservative Party for the lead, according to a Forum Research poll.

Last week, a Nanos Research poll showed the Liberals still in the lead with 35.7 per cent of support from committed voters, while the Conservatives had 29.7 per cent support, and the NDP had 24.8 per cent support. The poll, conducted with 1,000 Canadians, including 897 committed voters, between Aug. 18 and 22 is accurate to within 3.3 percentage points.

Mr. Mulcair told The Canadian Press last week the polling numbers were not a surprise to him, especially having gone through his own leadership highs.

"Our [poll] numbers were very high and they [caucus] were giddy with the numbers and I just sat everybody down, literally all 100 MPs and I said Take a deep breath, those numbers aren't going to hold, the Liberals are going to go through a year where it's their turn to have a leadership race, they'll get a lot of attention, they'll be on helium at the end of the spring session,'" he said. "This is not unexpected to me. But there's an arc to these stories, there's a cadence to them. And what we're seeing now is for the first time some people are just scratching their heads and saying, What's this? You mean you're not going to have any ideas and you're expecting us to just let you coast until the next election?'"

Mr. Mulcair was referring to Mr. Trudeau saying that the Liberal Party is not rushing to talk about policies two years out from an election campaign.

NDP MP Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) told The Hill Times that he doesn't focus on polling and has spent part of his summer doing outreach in both his riding and Conservative-held ridings in Brampton and Brantford, both in southwestern Ontario.

"The difference between us and the Liberals is we've actually put ideas out there and taken a stance on issues," he said, noting that he's been "hammering out an agenda" on ethics, the economy, energy and the environment. "People don't wake up in the morning thinking. Okay what are the polls saying?' They wake up saying, Okay, what about my kids' tuition and how much am I having to pay and what are the opportunities for them to get a job, or my parents' homecare, or what's Canada doing on the international stage?' Those are the serious issues that we have to deal with and those are the issues we'll be dealing with [this] week [at caucus]."

Robin MacLachlan, vice-president of Summa Strategies and a former NDP Hill staffer, said last week that "it's been a long summer" and the caucus is "eager" to meet. "New Democrats are eager for the return of Parliament, for sure, and eager to get back to the work of serving Canadians, so I think this caucus meeting is an opportunity to chart that path," he told The Hill Times. "You're also going to start seeing more from Tom Mulcair and the NDP about his vision, his ideas to move Canada forward."

Mr. MacLachlan said there's "no denying" that Mr. Trudeau has a "celebrity status" and that the media are focusing on it, but with two years away from an election, the NDP will continue to work to build its base and reach out to new voters across the country. "There's no change in our strategy," he said. "There's no denying that his celebrity status makes it tough to break through headlines especially when those headlines are about celebrities smoking pot. When it comes the time for Canadians to choose their next prime minister, I think they'll be looking for more and I think New Democrats are confident that Mulcair's competence, experience, ideas, and vision to move Canada forward will stand in stark contrast to Trudeau's weaknesses in those areas."

Mr. Julian agreed, calling Mr. Trudeau "Harper-light" and noting that what recent polling shows is that it is a three-party race.

"I understand the media have an interest in the polling, but that doesn't change the fundamentals. The fundamentals are Canadians want change. Mr. Trudeau is a light version of Mr. Harper. The few policy positions he's taken, including on marijuana where he voted with Mr. Harper, have been positions where he's mirrored where the Conservatives are," he said. "If people are looking for change, it's not a choice between Mr. Harper and Mr. Harper-light; it's looking for somebody who has experience, who shows real leadership and is somebody who embodies change, and Tom Mulcair embodies all those things."

The NDP caucus meeting takes place at the Delta Hotel. Mr. Julian said after the meeting ends, MPs will fan out across Saskatchewan to talk to voters. "We need to be listening to folks in Saskatchewan, we need to bring their concerns to Parliament, and as we fan out across Saskatchewan after the caucus retreat, I expect that what we'll be hearing from people in Saskatchewan is similar to what I've been hearing in my riding," he said. "They want to see an ethical government in Ottawa and that's why I think it will be very fertile ground for the NDP and that's why we'll be sending MPs throughout Saskatchewan to listen to Saskatchewan folks and to bring their concerns back to Ottawa."

bvongdou@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Online: http://www.hilltimes.com/news/news/2013/09/09/ndp-call-trudeau-%E2%80%98harper-light%E2%80%99/35863