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The left has the dreams. Harper has the cards

There are many reasons - until you look at certain realities - for the blossoming of hope among Canada's political left.

The New Democratic Party has always had a smaller magnetic field than its two main federal opponents, but with the surge to second place, the party appears in position to expand its reach.

Liberalism has become a bore. It dims the imagination. It's mush. By contrast, the New Democrats have some ideological teeth. They can speak with authenticity of voice for social democratic values. With the visibility the Official Opposition party gets, they can now have those values highlighted against the Conservative template.

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Young Canadians have become more politically engaged, and the New Democrats have a big slice of that market. The Dippers are out front of the Conservatives on green issues and health care. They're out front on representing the proverbial little guy. If they handle it properly, they can make the issue of growing income inequality - the egregious gap between rich and poor - a front-burner issue, as opposed to a tiresome cliché.

With 59 seats, the NDP is now the party of Quebec. This could become increasingly significant. With the sovereigntists all but bereft of representation in Ottawa, watch for a possible backlash, a refocusing of separatist passions around the flag-bearing Parti Québécois. With its nationalist bent, the NDP will be in the midst of it all.

Jack Layton's party has an opening on the issue of democratic reform. With the Conservatives having turned accountability into some kind of joke, the Dippers can hold their feet to the fire. When the Liberals tried to do this, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could always throw their own record - the sponsorship scandal, etc. - back at them. Not so with the NDP, which should campaign to clean up the system by pushing for the reinstatement of the Public Appointments Commission. Back in 2006, Mr. Harper formed the commission, a fine idea, as a way of cutting down on the profligate bestowal of patronage. But after the opposition parties rejected his nominee as commission chair, he inexcusably abandoned it.

These are the kinds of files where the NDP's potential sounds promising. That is, until you consider what they're up against: a Conservative machine with the money, media and might to overrun anything it faces.

Just like the Liberals, the New Democrats are at a huge financial disadvantage. When the Conservatives feel so inclined, they'll strike with brutal advertising that the NDP won't have the resources to rebut. Does anyone think Thomas Mulcair's outburst about Osama bin Laden won't be aired countless times when the appropriate moment arrives? Or Jack Layton's massage-parlour visit? Don't put it past the Conservatives.

The Conservative advantage in the media is staggering. Beyond the Toronto Star, which is more Liberal than NDP, do the New Democrats have even one backer, one standard bearer, among major Canadian outlets? By contrast, the Conservatives have squadrons, not the least of which is Sun Media, which now has a television network (run by one of Mr. Harper's former public-relations directors) devoted to the conservative cause.

While running a minority government, Mr. Harper made easy work of the Liberal opposition. Imagine what he can do with a majority while facing an official Opposition with an historically much smaller base of support than the Grits. He dominates the House, the Senate, the parliamentary committees, the public service. He has many of his partisans in place in agencies and watchdog groups. He has just been handed a Supreme Court decision on privacy that his team will interpret as a licence to withhold any information it pleases.

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We might recall a decade ago what the governing Liberals did to an ideological party of the right in opposition, Stockwell Day's Canadian Alliance. Flip that over and imagine what a much stronger Harper machine might make of an ideological party of the left.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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