A perennial frustration of observing and practicing the delicate art of politics is the maddening difficulty of linking policies with outcomes.
Can we assert with any certainly, for instance, what causes an economic boom? Tax cuts? Deregulation? Stimulus spending? Unions? Or how about unemployment? What causes that? Over-regulation? A lack of unions? And what of crime? Rudy Giuliani thought you could make it lower by locking up folks who break windows; the Freakonomics guys said it was all about abortion.
It’s partially because such mysteries persist that democratic government was created. We elect folks who make plausible-sounding linkages between what they want to do and what we want to happen, and punish them after convincing ourselves that the various bad things happening around us are directly linked to their bad ideas. One of the main measures of a skilled politician, in turn, is his or her effectiveness at linking themselves to the good and their opponents to the bad.
Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, is not a great linker.
Last year, for example, following a massive recall of Albertan beef possibly tainted with E. Coli, the NDP boss claimed the outbreak was the direct result of the Harper government’s budget cuts to food inspectors.
The claim didn’t stick, mostly because it was so easily disproven. As the agriculture minister was quick to point out, the Alberta plant responsible for producing the tainted meat had actually increased its staff of food inspectors since the Conservative Party came to power. Instead, a post-mortem report would blame the incident on a “weak food safety culture” at the facility in question. Whatever damage Harper’s budget cuts might have inflicted on “public safety” — a frequent theme of Mulcair speeches — this very particular outbreak of E. Coli didn’t appear to be one.
Tom was embarrassed, but the larger lesson apparently went unlearned.
Last week, Canadians watched in horror and shock as an oil-delivery train derailed and exploded while passing through the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing dozens. It was, by all accounts, a freak accident born from a very complex series of human and mechanical screw-ups with the train’s breaks, though in the words of one bureaucrat, it may well be “months or more” before anyone knows precisely what went wrong when.
Unless you’re Thomas Mulcair, of course. Looks like we found “another case where the government has been cutting in the wrong area,” he declared the day after the tragedy.
“We are seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail, and there are attendant dangers involved in that. And at the same time, the Conservative government is cutting transport safety in Canada, cutting back the budgets in that area.”
As was the case with the tainted meat, there was absolutely zero evidence to support this thesis. The Conservative government had increased funding for rail safety over the last couple of years, and in any case, it was hardly obvious that the Lac-Megantic derailment was caused by an operational deficiency in the Canadian railway system, let alone one rooted in a lack of available funds.
The NDP leader was soundly condemned. A “new low,” said Bob Rae. “New” being the operative word.
Mulcair’s problem is not that he employs the ugly tactic of opportunistically linking bad things with his partisan opponents — as discussed, all politicians do that — but rather that the links he chooses are way too precise, and thus too easily disprovable. It’s one thing to blame the Prime Minister for a social ill that’s broad and vague — the sluggish economy, for example — but it’s quite another to assert he has blood on his hands for a highly particular tragedy localized in a very a specific time and place.
This knee-jerk impulse to constantly assert damning conclusions on very little evidence reflects a shallow, conspiratorial style of political thought, but unfortunately, that’s nothing new for Mulcair either. The NDP boss after all, is a man whose first major act on the national stage involved denying the existence of Osama Bin Laden’s death photos, who endorsed a 9/11 Truther for mayor of Montreal, and who’s been a big (lone?) pusher of a weird and complicated conspiracy theory that the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada conspired with the British government in the early 1980s to undermine Quebec as Prime Minister Trudeau negotiated repatriating the Canadian constitution with Margaret Thatcher (I don’t really understand it either). A tweet from Maclean’s journalist Paul Wells a few months back was quite revealing: “I had colleagues in Quebec City,” he said, referring to the NDP leader’s days working in the Quebec capital, “who would go to Mulcair first for elaborate theories of intricate scheming, because he always had some.”
Thomas Mulcair is, in many ways, an NDP politician straight out of central casting: bearded, irritable, frumpily-dressed, and prone to fits of theatrical leftist outrage that often seem more motivated by route partisan obligation than any genuinely-held ideological principle. And aside from “bearded,” that string of adjectives also accurately describes most of the forgettable, unsuccessful NDP bosses that preceded him, but not the late, (and, electorally at least,) great Jack Layton, who’s starting to look ever-more like the NDP’s exception that proves the rule.
Unseating an incumbent prime minister is a tough task in Canada, and tougher still for a political party that historically has never been close to doing so. NDP hopes for achieving this impossible dream in the 2015 federal election have therefore always required the unlikely — if not implausible — synchronicity of both a dynamic, attractive leader to head the party and a compelling, winning issue to exploit. Under Mulcair, they lack both.
Scratch that — because of Mulcair they lack both. And that’s the one linkage that matters.