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Canada Opposition Head Mulcair Wants New Democrat Changes

Canada’s main opposition New Democratic Party will change its policies to broaden its appeal, new head Thomas Mulcair pledged after winning the party’s leadership.

Mulcair, 57, who was a Quebec cabinet minister with Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government before running federally for the NDP in 2007, said at his first press conference as leader his challenge will be to convince Canadian voters the party can be trusted to govern the country.

“One of the elements we’re going to have to work on is to make sure that people realize that the NDP is formed by a team of women and men capable of providing good, competent, solid public administration,” Mulcair told reporters yesterday one day after winning the NDP’s leadership race at a convention in Toronto. “Sometimes people have hesitated on that account.”

The leadership race was forced by the death in August of Jack Layton, who led the party to the best election result in its 50-year history largely due to a breakthrough in Quebec, where they won 59 of the province’s 75 districts.

The NDP -- which historically has had close ties to organized labor and represents Canada in London-based Socialist International, a worldwide organization of social democratic and socialist parties -- had never fared better than third place before last year’s election.

Mulcair sought to take credit for the NDP’s Quebec gains, pledging during the campaign to broaden the party’s support beyond its “traditional” base. Brian Topp, a union leader who finished second in the leadership race with 43 percent of the vote to Mulcair’s 57 percent, had said that meant Mulcair would bring the party to the “center” to make it more like the Liberals.

Bring the Center Closer

Mulcair, the party’s only lawmaker from Quebec until last year’s election, countered that his objective is to bring the “center” closer to the NDP, reaching out to voters who have in the past voted Liberal.

“We adapt,” he told reporters. “That’s what political parties do.”

Canada’s dollar fell in the last two weeks of last year’s election campaign as the NDP rose in the polls, raising the prospect it may have ended up as part of a coalition government with the Liberals. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a majority in the vote.

The NDP platform contained C$68.9 billion ($69 billion) of campaign promises over four years, compared with the Conservatives’ C$6.6 billion of promises over five years.

Mulcair has called for an end to subsidies for the country’s oil industry, which he claims has helped to fuel gains in the dollar and led to job losses in manufacturing. He uses terms such as “laissez-faire” to label Harper’s government and called for a financial transactions tax.

Less Restrictive

Still, Mulcair has advocated environmental policies that are less restrictive on the country’s energy sector than the NDP has in the past.

In the 2008 federal election, the party called for a moratorium on development of Alberta’s oil sands. Last year, they promised to discourage “bulk exports” of raw oil-sands bitumen and encourage the upgrading and refining of crude oil within Canada. Such a policy would have hurt the prospects of Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil-sands bitumen to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia.

Mulcair says he wants to introduce a “cap-and-trade” system that would put a price on carbon that companies emit.

“You won’t hear me talking about putting an end to the development of the oil sands,” he said yesterday.

Building Support

Mulcair’s election “reflects the concern of the NDP with maintaining support in Quebec and building on it,” said Kathy Brock, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It also suggests “a lot of people who are interested in seeing the NDP adapt and move ahead.”

Mulcair said he wants the party to stop using language such as socialism.

“I remain one of those who continues to believe that we have to refresh our approach and what we say to Canadians,” Mulcair said yesterday. “We have to use a language that is addressed not only to our supporters but can attract people who share our vision but who sometimes think the terms we use are not really that helpful.”

“He’s a former provincial Liberal, the center for him is not a scary place,” said Nik Nanos, an Ottawa-based pollster. “The challenge is that for the New Democratic core they view the Liberals and the Conservatives both as enemies to certain degrees.”

That may be hard for the NDP, which has always prided itself on taking principled positions, Nanos said.

‘Unwieldy Coalition’

“If he is able to achieve his goal of attracting more Liberals, the NDP is going to be an unwieldy coalition to run because there is going to be a lot of very passionate, conflicting interests within the popular front,” he said.

Mulcair, the second oldest of 10 children, was born in Ottawa and raised in Laval, Quebec, just north of Montreal. He holds a law degree from that city’s McGill University. He was in provincial politics between 1994 and 2007, serving as environment minister in Charest’s cabinet.

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