Thomas Mulcair’s so-so first year as NDP leader

Thomas Mulcair after winning the NDP leadership in Toronto on March 24, 2012Sunday marks Thomas Mulcair's first year anniversary of winning the leadership of the New Democratic Party.

It's been a year of some ups and some downs.

On the positive, Mulcair has built the party into a disciplined well-oiled opposition. He's put together an impressive team — both on the front benches and behind the scenes — that is professional and efficacious as any other party's. Moreover, Mulcair has proven himself to be an effective and forceful orator in the House of Commons in opposition to the Harper government.

But there have been several challenges and gaffes for the NDP over the past year as well.

Two MPs defected from the party: one to the Bloc and one — Bruce Hyer — became an independent.

[ Related: NDP defection rehashes the party's sovereignty problem ]

The NDP leader has also gone against public opinion on at least two major issues.

Mulcair was chastised in the media, and especially in Western Canada, for his staunch opposition to the Keystone pipeline and about Dutch disease — the theory that suggests booming bitumen exports hurt Canadian manufacturers and cause huge job losses.

And then there was the "Quebec issue." In January, Mulcair said that he wanted to replace the Clarity Act, only to have a poll — one week later — suggest that Canadians disagree with the NDP stance that '50 per cent plus one' is enough for a province to separate.

[ Related: Most Canadians don’t believe a ‘simple majority’ should be enough for Quebec to separate ]

"I think he's in a tough spot," Conservative political consultant Jim Ross told Yahoo! Canada News.

"His actions lately are those of a nervous leader playing defense and defending his base. He's worried about progressives voting for Justin [Trudeau], so he's fighting against Canadian economic interests in DC. He's worried about Quebec nationalists, so he's pushing legislation to make it easier for Quebec to separate.

"He might be bringing discipline and a more modern organization to the Party, but it's not helping him defend his base and it's certainly not helping him reach out to mainstream Canadians."

The polls reflect Ross' assertion that Mulcair isn't reaching out to mainstream Canadians: one poll had the NDP down 6.5 percentage points between June and December 2012.

Political analyst Gerry Nicholls says those numbers aren't really Mulcair's fault: he blames Trudeau-mania.

"For the past six months or so, ever since Justin Trudeau entered the limelight, Mulcair has been pushed into the sidelines somewhat," Nicholls told Yahoo! Canada News.

"It seems the only time he makes news these days is when something goes wrong, as when one of his MPs defected to the Bloc."

Ekos Research pollster Frank Graves suggests that Mulcair is also battling the ghost of Jack Layton.

"He...is struggling to break out of the shadow of Jack Layton, who is now the subject of a hagiography and about to be anointed secular saint," Graves said in an email exchange with Yahoo! Canada News.

"So this is a tough inheritance gig and even his own party supporters appear to be somewhat ambivalent about him."

While Graves concedes that year one wasn't anything to write home about, he says Mulcair's performance in year two will be much more critical.

"Mr. Mulcair would be well advised to shrug off his middling first year as leader of the opposition and recognize that he is in the midst of an unpredictable three way race for the next PM of Canada," Graves said.

"There are staunch challenges, particularly a weakened position in Quebec, and a sense that he leads a second [Liberal Party of Canada], which now is moving back into contention.

"But there is dwindling affection for Mr. Harper’s government and large vagaries about how Justin Trudeau will fare under the day-to-day spotlight of leadership. So this may have not been a bell-ringing year but he finds himself squarely in the race to be the next [Prime Minister] of Canada and his second year will be far more important to his historical legacy than this rookie season."

Will Mulcair have a better 'sophomore' year?

With Trudeau at the helm of the Liberals and with the Conservatives presumably ramping up their pre-election campaign, year two might even be tougher.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

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