Canada has only had two political parties who have governed the country’s affairs and destiny—the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. Just as in the United States, the two-party approach has served our democracy well. Unlike the U.S., however, our parliamentary system leaves more room for the establishment and the sustaining presence of a third party. In Canada, third parties have come and gone, but one has had a persistent role over a number of decades and it is the New Democratic Party (NDP).
The New Democratic Party, created in 1961, was formed from the fusion of the Christian left Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party and the Canadian Labor Congress. By so doing, the new party attempted to enlarge its share of the electorate and appeal to a wider range of progressive views from the political left. Often referred to by its Liberal and Conservative opponents as socialists, the NDP resembles more the social democratic left associated with Britain’s Labour Party and other European countries. Its leaders, generally moderate in tone and policy, have come across as sensible and principled types. While the NDP has never governed nationally, it has been a key player in some of our provinces.
For the first time in its history, the NDP is no longer the third party in Canada’s House of Commons. It is now the official opposition party, and its leader Tom Mulcair could very well become Canada’s next prime minister.
The formerly dominant Liberal Party is embarking on a leadership contest with the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau, being touted as the next leader. But a closer look is being directed at Mulcair and the kind of prime minister he could become. Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal minister and deputy leader of the federal NDP, won his party’s leadership race over many long standing and more conventional NDP standard bearers. For some party regulars and stalwarts like former leader Ed Broadbent, it was near heresy to select a recent convert to the NDP.
Mulcair replaced his beloved predecessor Jack Layton, who led the NDP to its official opposition party status, but sadly passed away a few months later. Layton, who actually recruited Mulcair, transformed his party long accustomed to being the “conscience of Parliament” into one that could actually lead Parliament. Québec, which had elected only two NDP candidates (including Mulcair) in its history, now elected 58 NDP members to propel the party into second place and become the alternative government. Choosing Mulcair was seen as a continuation of Layton’s work and making the party into one with potential mass appeal to progressives across the country.
The next Canadian federal election is due in 2015. This is plenty of time for the Liberals to regroup around Justin Trudeau and engineer a comeback. However, since Mulcair has become leader of the official opposition, he has placed the governing Conservatives on the defensive through the daily question period and has surpassed the Conservatives in some polls since becoming leader.
I have known Tom Mulcair over 25 years. If there is one individual who can make the NDP a permanent mainstream party in Canada, it is likely someone like him. Not dogmatic, but principled, methodical, and determined, Mulcair can present both a compassionate left and a realistic one—that is, one that can govern, balance budgets, set priorities, and bring in focused reforms. In so doing, Mulcair and the NDP could very well be on the path to making history.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella.