Tom Mulcair Among the Townies: Sticking to his Strong Suit

Ottawa Citizen, March 18, 2015

So long as the battleground upon which Justin Trudeau chooses to contest Stephen Harper’s Conservatives remains the quagmire of hot-button headline hysterics about niqabs and guns, the New Democratic Party would be wise to stay out of it. This appears to have lately dawned on Thomas Mulcair, the cerebral Quebec liberal at the NDP’s helm, and if he can manage to steer clear of all the culture-war clickbaiting that’s going on he’ll place his party as close to the prospect of forming a government as the NDP has ever been.

It’s not just that New Democrats would be foolish to upbraid rural voters who fail to soil themselves upon hearing that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made some offhand comment at a meeting of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities about the good sense of having a shotgun handy if one happens to live in the backwoods.

Neither is it because Trudeau has already sewn up the demographic that is given to fainting spells at the proposition that new Canadians might be politely asked to show their faces for the brief moment it takes to swear a loyalty oath at a citizenship ceremony.

It’s true enough that Conservative MP Larry Miller was being inexcusably vulgar about the subject this week when he went full-tilt hillbilly and suggested that new Canadians unwilling to show their faces at citizenship ceremonies should be told “then stay the hell where you came from.”

But just one reason the New Democrats should stay out of these imbroglios is that there are rather more important things to attend to. As Mulcair put it in a rousing speech to New Democrats in Toronto last Sunday, Canada has reached a juncture, for the first time in its history, in which the country’s children are likely to be worse off than their parents. Roughly half of Greater Toronto’s households do not contain a single person with a full-time job. The work that’s available tends to be not just part-time but lousy. Something like 20,000 Toronto families are waiting for child-care spots they can afford.

Mulcair’s New Democrats have developed some perfectly respectable, conventionally social-democratic notions about how to deal with these dysfunctions and make the country a better place in the bargain. An hourly federal minimum wage of $15. Rolling back the retirement age from 67 to 65. Tax cuts for small businesses. A big federal investment in child care and transit. That sort of thing.

As Postmedia’s Michael Den Tandt observed about Mulcair’s weekend foray among Upper Canada’s townies – Greater Toronto is home to roughly a sixth of the country’s working people – not once did Mulcair resort to flighty rhetoric about liberty or national security or the niqab.

Another reason this is a wise course for the New Democrats is that when you come right down to it, odd as it may seem, there isn’t much in the Conservatives’ more carefully scripted utterances about the niqab, and about what it symbolizes, that any self-respecting social democrat should not also be able to say with a clear conscience and in only a slightly different lexicon.

When he was explaining his view about niqabs and citizenship oaths to Trudeau in the House of Commons last week, Harper cited a supporting statement from the Coalition of Progressive Canadian Muslim Organizations and pointed out that his view was consistent with that of “the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims.” In what would have been unobjectionable if an NDP MP had said it, Harper pointed out that the niqab arises from “a culture that is anti-women.”

To accuse Harper of resorting to “Islamophobia” by that statement requires an irresponsible conflation of “Muslim” culture with the objectively misogynistic niqab-enforcing Wahhabi cult, which most Muslims cannot abide.  A conflation of that kind would itself be “Islamophobic,” and thus a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Islamophobia was nonetheless the iniquity Mulcair could not resist attributing to Harper.

This brings us to the main reason the New Democrats should think twice and twice again before trudging out into the frivolous battlefields where Trudeau and quite a few Conservative rednecks are just itching to have a good go at one another. It’s an enfeeblement that was well described by Michael Walzer, an eminence-grise of the old guard American Left, in a recent essay published in Dissent Magazine.

The failure of the liberal-left in general to recognize and address the tyrannical nature of Islamism – that melange of political doctrines that rest their claims to social and political power on various and unavoidably conflicting interpretations of the Koran – is due in great measure to what Walzer calls “the terrible fear of being called Islamophobic.” There’s Anti-Americanism and extreme cultural relativism at work, too, but: “Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots — and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.”

This “difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world” is a good-enough way of explaining the NDP’s incoherence on some of the more vexing issues Canada has faced in recent years: the Afghanistan engagement, the Libyan intervention, a principled response to the Arab Spring and all those other debates where Islamophobia and the fear of Islamophobia have both so effectively mucked things up.

The related canard of “Sinophobia” has also rendered the NDP largely irrelevant to the bread-and-butter concerns of Metro Vancouver voters whose wages have remained stagnant while their city has become one of the least-afforable housing markets in the industrialized world. The Lower Mainland’s stratospheric house prices are not exactly unrelated to the tens of thousands of Beijing-beholden multi-millionaires who bought Canadian citizenship via the just-shuttered immigrant investment program and socked great wads of their lucre in Vancouver real estate.

After all these years, investor-class Asian immigrants in Canada have contributed less to the federal treasury and to the Canadian economy than Asian refugees have. But, you know, mustn’t mention that.

This is not Mulcair’s fault. He’s still a newcomer to the NDP leadership. But the 2015 federal election is Mulcair’s big moment, and a focus on the foremost concerns of Canada’s working people is not just the NDP’s safest bet. That focus has always been the party’s strongest suit.

Better, for now, to stick with that.

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