The future of the NDP: Effective in opposition, but a long, rocky road ahead

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons.

It is a basic rule of politics, circa Political Science 101, that the “outs” get in and the “ins” (except in Alberta) are ousted. Or, to put it another way, any political leader with historical perspective knows that the day of victory is the first day on the track to eventual defeat. And conversely, any defeated leader knows that the day of defeat is the first day of the march to eventual victory.

So for the political observer, the rule of thumb is that “the time to get to know the government is before it becomes the government.” And this is the approach the U.S. embassy took in 1992 when Brian Mulroney's Conservatives were roadkill awaiting the electoral sweeper. We met the full range of the Liberal political hierarchy, not knowing which portfolios they would secure, but getting a sense of where they were “coming from” so we could make some estimate regarding where they would go when in power. Likewise, during the long Chretien-Martin/Liberal dominance, we checked the trap line with prominent members of Reform, Canadian Alliance, and finally the 2003 merger into the Conservative Party of Canada. So we were reasonably prepared for the 2006 Stephen Harper victory in the “no surprises” department.

Of course, it can be the equivalent of wasted effort, as we also spent significant analytic/personal effort with the leadership of the Bloc Quebecois and Parti Quebecois seeking to determine the objectives that a Quebec separatist government might pursue.

For a political analyst, Canada is never dull.

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And now we have the New Democratic Party.

The NDP surge, the Liberal Party collapse, and concurrent meltdown of the Bloc Quebecois were the great stories of the 2011 election. To be sure, the first Tory majority government was vitally important for Canadian political stability, but the Jack Layton-led NDP as Official Opposition, the historic fall of the Liberals to third place, and the annihilation of the BQ were fascinating. Then Layton’s almost immediate death left a yawning “what next” gulf for the New Democrats. Would we see a rudderless “ship of fools” with the totally inexperienced newbie Quebec caucus providing daily comedy grist? Or would it simply be an ineffectual parliamentary opposition reminding one of how the 1993 Reform caucus was depicted as just having fallen off the turnip truck?

A strong economy and "clean" leadership gives PM Stephen Harper a clear advantageBut such has not been the case. Having sorted through leadership contenders, the NDP battened upon Thomas Mulcair, formerly the party’s only Quebec MP. Mulcair now appears dominant in the party; he has maintained discipline among his 50-plus Quebec MPs, many of whom strongly sympathized with Montreal’s student striker-demonstrators; and eliminated the snarky jokes over the ignorant inexperience of his new MPs.

The consequence has been an effective Opposition. The Tory majority is relentlessly dominant; its ministers are articulate and efficient in expeditiously advancing the government program. The NDP has been steamrollered, but not beaten; it has worked opportunities and, with a sympathetic media, drawn attention to Tory manipulation of parliamentary rules that can be depicted as unfair. Perhaps most effectively, they exploited the inept handling of the decision to purchase F-35 fighters, prompting a government “reset” and new review of contenders to replace aging Canadian F-18s.

However, regarding prospective bilateral U.S.-Canada relations, the NDP in general and Mulcair in particular are clear negatives. Historically, the NDP has been either openly hostile or intensely skeptical regarding relations with the United States. They opposed FTA and NAFTA; they question energy exports; they believe in global warming/energy taxes. In foreign affairs they seek UN consensus and prefer Palestinians to Israelis; in defense, they want a Canada that punches below its weight and would act only with UN endorsement.

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Most problematic is Mulcair. Famously, after President Obama announced bin Laden’s death but declined to release photos as too inflammatory, Mulcair declared, "I don't think, from what I've heard, that those pictures exist …” Although he subsequently crawfished, his first reaction is indicative. He didn’t hesitate to call Obama a liar. And that is a view the U.S. government will remember, regardless of how Mulcair subsequently minds his mouth.

The next scheduled Canadian election is October 2015, and currently the Tories would appear favorites based on a good economy and capable, “clean” leadership. But at the nine-year mark, the Tories may encounter voter fatigue, and there are always “events” to scuttle the most adroit. Nevertheless, the NDP will have its hands full fighting over the center-left with new Liberal leadership; there will be at least one more election before Liberals/NDP seriously consider fusion/alignment/coalition.

Perhaps not the Chinese curse of “interesting times” but still not dull ones.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.