A look into the crystal ball on the Liberal and NDP leadership races

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 4, 2012

If you'd asked me a year ago if I thought there would be a federal election in 2011, that Jack Layton would become opposition leader and that the Bloc Québécois would all but disappear, I'd have said no to all of the above.

Layton held the balance of power in the minority House, and he was negotiating on the March budget with the prime minister. There was enough in the budget for the New Democratic Party that it was endorsed by the Canadian Labour Congress.

And there were concerns about Layton's health. His prostate cancer led to an important complication - hip surgery. Surely he would not allow himself to be put through a punishing fiveweek campaign.

But Layton had another view. While he wanted to be seen as negotiating the budget in good faith, he also told his advisers he wanted Michael Ignatieff as his opponent, and he was apparently concerned the Liberals would give Ignatieff the hook before an election in 2012. So an election that few had predicted produced an outcome that no one had foreseen.

With that disclaimer, some thoughts on the year ahead in politics:

Layton's death in August left a huge political void in the NDP, and created obvious caucus-management issues. Absent his leadership, the NDP is treading water in the House. In retrospect, it was a mistake to follow his wish that Nycole Turmel be installed as interim leader. It was asking too much of a freshman member to play the lead role in question period. Not only is she unseasoned, but many of the NDP's best performers are out of the House on the leadership campaign trail.

Thus, in the fall session, Bob Rae of the Liberals stepped in and did a very nice job of filling the vacuum. But the Liberals are the third party, sitting in the far corner of the House, and likely to remain there through at least one more election. The math is remorseless: they have 34 MPs and the NDP has 102. The Liberals have been reduced to 11 members from Ontario and seven from Quebec, the two provinces on which Liberal dynasties were built through the 20th century. Rebuilding will take two elections, if not three.

Which makes the NDP leadership race an important event. The New Dems aren't the fourth party anymore. They're the official opposition, and they want to be seen as a government-inwaiting.

In an overcrowded field of nine candidates there needs to be a winnowing, but there are two obvious front-runners - Brian Topp and Tom Mulcair - and two others in the first tier - Peggy Nash and Nate Cullen. Another half-dozen debates are scheduled before the convention in Toronto in March.

The race is Topp's to lose. Though he's been a backroom boy until now, he has the strongest résumé and the best personal narrative. He worked in the Saskatchewan premier's office for NDP governments that balanced the books and cut program spending. He was a close adviser to Layton, has run a national campaign, and led the debate prep for the 2011 election. He's a union leader, as president of the Toronto office of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. And he's totally bilingual, raised on the south shore of Montreal by an anglophone father and francophone mother. But Topp needs to do a better job of connecting with the rank and file. He's top-heavy with endorsements from party elders such as Roy Romanow and Ed Broadbent, although it's not clear how that translates into support in a onemember, one-vote preferential ballot.

Mulcair's obvious strength is his favourite-son candidacy in Quebec. However, at the outset of the campaign, the NDP had only about 2,000 members from Quebec out of nearly 100,000 nationwide. So Mulcair's challenge from the beginning was to recruit more Quebec members while building support across the country. He also can be a hothead, but up to now he has kept his temper under control.

Nash is a Toronto MP who could be the dark horse in this race. Cullen, from the British Columbia interior, is unlikely to win, but he's making a name for himself as a good-humoured campaigner who stakes out niche positions on issues. For example, he favours some kind of nonaggression pact or working arrangement between the NDP and the Liberals.

The Liberals have a decision of their own to make at their Ottawa policy convention this month: whether to give Rae a permission slip to run in the 2013 leadership race, in which case he would have to stand down as interim leader. It's obvious to most people that the best person to lead the Liberals is the one leading them now - the most experienced, the most qualified, best of any of them on his feet in the House. Then again, you can make a very good case that the Liberals need generational change. But their roster of leadership candidates in the House is very thin. Would they want to go outside for another saviour?

That didn't work so well with Ignatieff.

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