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Is Mulcair prepared for perpetual opposition?

What else could NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair say in response to a party report chronicling the shortcomings of the party's last election campaign?

"As leader, I take full responsibility for these shortcomings," he wrote this week. "I could have done a better job."

It is said that defeat is an orphan and victory has 1,000 fathers. Needless to say, no one is claiming paternity for the terrible NDP result. Mr. Mulcair had bizarre press advice and serious weaknesses in strategic advisers, but the leader is the leader. He chose those around him. He decided whether or not to listen. He is ultimately responsible, the paterfamilias of defeat.

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Which leads to the question of his continuing leadership – a question that will be put to delegates at the party's April convention. Mr. Mulcair wants to stay. No one is agitating publicly to replace him. But the results of the last election, and the prospects for the next, might weigh against his chances.

The NDP, never much focused on taking power, did not throw past leaders overboard following disappointing election results. The NDP expected to lose, the only question being by how much. So leaders were cut slack, especially if the party's self-proclaimed moral victories made the NDP feel good about itself.

The NDP has returned to the territory of moral victories. The party peaked in popularity in the middle of last year, and allowed itself to believe, against all the currents of history, that Canadians might put the party in power.

When that dream collapsed, so obviously did the campaign. All but core Conservatives wanted change, a sentiment the Liberals captured. The result left the federal NDP back in distant third place. Provincially, the NDP runs two provinces, one of which, Manitoba, is quite likely to heave the party from office in the April provincial election.

The painful reality – one that will endure for some time – is that only party stalwarts care what the NDP has to say about anything. The Liberals not only bestride Canadian politics, but as long as they talk grandly about the environment and "reconciliation" with aboriginals, spend freely on social and physical infrastructure and run very large deficits – all of which the Liberals plan to do – the NDP will have precious little political space.

The Liberals have a vigorous, youthful leader. If the Conservatives have any brains they will choose one of those at their convention in 2017. If so, the NDP will be left with a grizzled Mr. Mulcair for the election campaign of 2019. Age and experience are useful for making wise judgments, but in this media age they can be a comparative handicap against more youthful leaders.

And there is the matter of Quebec. More than anything else, Mr. Mulcair's Quebec roots propelled him to the leadership. His work there was credited with having contributed to the "Orange Wave" in Quebec that made the NDP the Official Opposition under Jack Layton.

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Now that wave has receded, and it is unlikely to be recreated. If so, then Mr. Mulcair's major political attribute will have lost some of its importance. Quebec support, and lots of it, was critical to making the NDP believe it might just win power. With a prolonged spell in third place beckoning, the Quebec imperative might lose some of its urgency.

It is always easier to be wise with the benefit of hindsight. The NDP, thinking it might win, constructed a key policy plank – a balanced budget – that was consistent with Mr. Mulcair's own preference for fiscal prudence and a necessary balm for fears that the NDP could not run a candy store.

That the federal party would embrace fiscal prudence as a cardinal tenet of an election platform was a first, for which the public rewarded the party with a slap in the face when the Liberals campaigned on large spending increases and a deficit, the size of which will be much larger than they had promised. Spending suggested "change" more than balanced budgets, which the Conservatives, after all, also preferred.

What the NDP believed would be a virtue turned into a liability. Now liberated from thinking like a party challenging for power, the NDP will head back into the mentality of being a perpetual opposition party.

Mr. Mulcair would have been a credible candidate for 24 Sussex Dr. Would he be the right fit for the wilderness?

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More


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