NDP leader Tom Mulcair's remarks about the oilsands have been his biggest mistake since becoming a national leader, says Rex.

Read a transcript of this Rex Murphy episode

It’s not the recession. It’s not the turmoil of the world’s economies. It’s not the crisis in Europe, or the trillions of debt in America.

No. The downturn in Canadian manufacturing (read Quebec and Ontario) is chiefly due to Alberta’s oil prosperity, the huge capital expenditures and vast labour force of the oilsands.

Such, curiously – to my mind - is the view of our Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair. He has almost gratuitously provoked the ire of the Western provinces, and agitated the always latent frictions between the West and Central Canada.

What a strange stance for a national leader to be taking. Juxtaposing the economic downturn of one part of the country against the prosperous activities in the other part. The activity out West is the single largest reason Canada has avoided the worst of the world’s recession – Mr. Mulcair might, gratefully, have noted that.

Furthermore, how strange that a national leader chooses to, so unavoidably, bring up the most divisive political policy of 30 years ago - the hated NEP (National Energy Program) - which put the whole of the West on a raging boil, and to a degree, tested the fabric of national unity. It is not a place any serious national federal politician wants to go again.

Which makes this so puzzling. Mr. Mulcair has had far more to say on the oilsands than he has on a subject much closer to his home base – the student protests and riots of recent weeks – save that he wants the feds to send more money to Quebec for education. Which – these days – means more money from…you guessed it – the West: the oilsands.

As you heard in the panel, it didn’t take long for Brad Wall, Premier of Saskatchewan, to come out and swing back – he said the logic of Mr. Mulcair’s remarks were "very, very divisive," and he went on to add "bad economics" and would "take a pipe wrench" to Alberta and Saskatchewan’s economies.

And then, no less a tranquil politician than Ed Stelmach, ex-Premier of Alberta, came out with surprisingly direct even ominous language: "How do you get votes? You beat up on Alberta." Stelmach said; "All I’m saying is watch the East, Ontario and Quebec. They’ve already got two leaders that are pointing fingers." End quote.

We do not want to go there, and the Opposition leader might do well to hold off these kinds of comments till he’s actually visited the oilsands, talked first with Western political, economic and labour leaders, and find common ground in being Canadian.

This game of playing one part of the country against another – which effectively is what Mr. Mulcair’s statements do – is of no value to anyone. Mr. Mulcair is no longer just representing Quebec – and the Western provinces are not some outlier region: he represents all of Canada.

These remarks have been his biggest mistake since becoming a national leader. He needs to revisit and revise them.

For The National, I’m Rex Murphy.