NDP’s orange ‘crush’ turning into flirtatious courtship

If the New Democratic Party (NDP) were dating Quebec, Nycole Turmel would have handed the province the keys to her apartment and they would be on their way to shacking up.

Much more than the initial orange “crush” that analysts had first attributed to the NDP’s rapid uprising in the last federal election, the relationship between the NDP and Quebec continues to grow, especially evidenced by the caucus’s attention to the province and the role it is playing in the beginnings of the leadership race.

In the party’s 2008 election platform, the NDP referenced Quebec a paltry six times in the entire document. While the NDP was still talking about issues relevant to Quebec, the province was not the party’s dominant focus and Quebeckers weren’t willing to get involved with the NDP just yet.

Now, however, the NDP is actively engaging with Quebec, becoming the province’s champion in place of the now defunct Bloc Quebecois. Almost 60 per cent of the NDP’s members hail from Quebec so the attention being devoted to the province is not only understandable but politically expedient. The party’s future rests, in part, in the ability of the next leader to convince Quebeckers that they are true social democrats, not just Layton admirers. To do so, both the caucus and the leadership aspirants must shower the province with attention.

There is no shortage of evidence that this is already occurring. Potential leadership frontrunner and current NDP President Brian Topp forced interim leader Turmel to clarify the party’s position on the sovereignty of Quebec when he suggested to a Toronto Sun reporter that Quebec constituted a nation within Canada, and that it should be considered for a certain number of seats in parliament, regardless of its population figures.

Topp’s statements also reopened the question of NDP policy on the Clarity Act. After the 1995 referendum, the Supreme Court ruled that no province in Canada could unilaterally secede from the country. If a referendum were held, however, where a clear number supported the separation, the federal government would be encumbered to enter into negotiations with that province.

The Supreme Court left it up to parliament to decide what a “clear number” actually was. Among other points, the house and senate implied in the 2000 Clarity Act that a supermajority (60 per cent) would be needed before secession would be considered.

The NDP’s disapproval of the Clarity Act is not a new phenomenon. As early as 2004, Jack Layton spoke of repealing the act and considered 50 per cent (not a supermajority) a sufficient number for separation.

Having garnered only 1.8 per cent of the vote in Quebec in the 2000 election, however, it didn’t get the same kind of attention. What is a party with that kind of support going to do about Quebec sovereignty?

But now, we’re in very different territory. The NDP is the party of Quebec and their position on these issues matter. Topp’s statements about Quebec are wrapped in political opportunism. He criticized Prime Minister Harper for recognizing Quebec as a nation in 2006 and he openly supported the Clarity Act. In this climate, though, if he wants a shot at the Quebec wing of the party (arguably a main base of the party now) he needs to quickly board the Quebec ship and abandon his past views.

Topp’s main rival for the job appears to be Thomas Mulcair. Mulcair was only the second Quebec NDP candidate in history to be elected to parliament and for years, he was the only NDP member from Quebec. Layton appointed him as deputy leader alongside Libby Davies, in part because of his affiliation with Quebec.

Mulcair’s election in a 2007 by-election can be thought of as the beginning of the orange “crush.” It was a window into Quebec for the NDP and they seized it. They capitalized on a younger generation of Quebeckers who sympathized with the social democratic values of the Bloc Quebecois but were searching for a federalist alternative.

Mulcair could present a daunting challenge for Brian Topp in Quebec. And, of course, a “spoiler” candidate could emerge just as Jack Layton did in his leadership contest.

But for now, the question remains how Quebec will shape the future of the NDP — and how the rest of Canadians will feel about its courtship with the province.

With fewer than 2,000 NDP members (only two per cent of the party’s national membership) residing in Quebec, the drive to commit more Quebeckers to the party to vote in the leadership race will be strong and noticeable. As such, the NDP will continue to focus on Quebec as a key plank in its platform. If the party can tie its commitment to Quebec into a broader social democratic weaving, it could be a national force to be reckoned with. If the next leader appeals to Quebeckers while building ties with progressive voters in the rest of the country, the Liberals would be in serious trouble.

If, however, the NDP (and its leadership contenders) “goes steady” with Quebec and fails to entice voters in the other provinces — or worse, turns them off — by expending too much effort on Quebec, the NDP’s federal success could be short-lived.

The debate over the NDP “crush” or “crash” is not over.

In fact, it’s just beginning.