Tom Mulcair has proven himself a talented opposition leader but close scrutiny of his written words can only detract from his reputation. Strength of Conviction (Dundurn Press), an autobiography and a campaign kick-start, gives the impression that Mulcair is self-righteous and simple-minded, even for a member of the New Democratic Party.
In the early chapters (boyhood, education, marriage), he's a human being. He writes simple prose, to charming effect. But as he turns to politics, he gradually congeals into a routine leftish automaton.
He knows what's wrong with environmental protection or child care, and how to fix them and all the other current problems. He has the answers. When a course of action appeals to him, politically and emotionally, he thinks it's the obvious solution. He believes we can have a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and retain milk supply management with its high tariff. "We're going to stand up strongly and defend our supply management system," he said the other day. But surely he knows that the milk tariff is exactly the sort of thing the Trans-Pacific Partnership is designed to abolish.
When he writes about history he tries in vain to balance wishful thinking with reality. He wants to believe Canada has always been essentially tolerant. He admits that we were less than compassionate toward Chinese labourers in the 19th century, Jews fleeing Hitler, interned Japanese, aboriginals who vainly demanded rights.
But, he says, we always return to Canada's "founding principles of pluralism, tolerance and solidity."
What founding principles can he mean, and who believed in them? In the 19th century, the record indicates, Protestants and Catholics barely found each other tolerable, let alone members of other races and religions. Politicians love to praise the virtues of potential voters but praising our ancestors leads Mulcair into fantasy. He reveals himself when he comments on the language of others. He maintains that the Conservatives wanted to invoke fear through their reactions last October to the murder on Parliament Hill of a Canadian soldier. He thinks Stephen Harper was wrong to speak of jihadism as a monster with tentacles reaching around the world. Mulcair calls Harper's rhetoric "wedge politics at its most egregious, cynically designed to divide Canadians." He points out that where Barack Obama used the phrase "house of worship," Harper "used the word 'mosque,' specifically. Even more shameful...." This is surely a grotesquely inflated version of political correctness: He considers it offensive to call a mosque a mosque (he repeated that notion in the debate on Thursday).
He informed us how well he handled the attack on Parliament: "My address to the nation sought first and foremost to reassure Canadians."
Few politicians have ever spoken so warmly of their own motives. Selfdoubt, ambiguity and nuance don't exist for him. From the title of his book to its last sentence, Mulcair takes great pains to assure us of his good feelings, his earnest hopes, his excellent intentions. He wants not power or fame but merely to do his best for the people.
Actually, he doesn't say "the people," or not often. Nor does he call us the public, or the voters, or the citizens. He prefers to speak of "Canadians," in case we might assume otherwise that he was doing his best for the Lithuanians or the Brazilians. This is a verbal tic of Ottawa people, long the favourite of Jean Chrétien. Mulcair likes it so much that he uses it up to four times on one page. He says in the first line on page 139 that "what Canadians needed was a breather" from politics. In the same paragraph he speaks of the NDP trying to limit "the damage from government policies to Canadian families." In the next paragraph he says the NDP worked "to benefit Canadians" by influencing the government to extend unemployment benefits. Before that paragraph ends we learn that this proved the NDP could "improve the lives of Canadians."
When searching for a phrase, Mulcair always opts for the well-worn. He believes his policies are new but in Strength of Convictions he deploys words from the ancient phrasebook politicians always keep handy. He says we've suffered under the old parties from "ever-diminishing expectations" when what we want is a good and decent Canada with a government that keeps its promises and no one is left behind. In the upcoming election, when Mulcair has a chance to become prime minister, we can attain these goals, if we manage to stay awake.