NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was forced Wednesday to defend flattering comments he made over a decade ago about the conservative policies of former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a day after his 2001 remarks were the water-cooler talk in Quebec.
As a member of the National Assembly in Quebec under the Liberal government of Jean Charest, Mulcair credited the success of England's economy under Thatcher's Conservative Party to the "winds of liberty and liberalism" that "swept across the markets in England."
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Mulcair made the comments in April 2001 in the context of a parliamentary commission where he sought to discredit the interventionist tendencies of a separatist government led by Bernard Landry.
"A government should never pretend it can replace the private market. It does not work," Mulcair said in 2001. "It didn't work in England. Up until Thatcher's time, that's what they tried, the government stuck its nose everywhere."
Unearthed by a Quebec blogger covering the federal campaign, the 2001 remarks and a 30-second video were shared widely on social media Tuesday.
The blog post went on to quote Mulcair saying that "interventionism is a failure. A government can create the conditions conducive to the creation of jobs… but the best way for a government to create wealth is to let the private market thrive and to get off the back of business men and women."
Karl Bélanger, a spokesperson for the NDP leader, said the comments circulated on social media were "distorted" and "do not hold water" given Mulcair's political track record and support for progressive policies. Bélanger said that Mulcair noted at the time that governments do have a role to play in the delivery of public services.
'Good services' a priority for Mulcair
On Wednesday, Mulcair defended his comments as an example of good public administration.
"There are certain things that work and others that don't, and it's not surprising that I'm in favour of the things that work," Mulcair said during an afternoon campaign stop in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday.
"My No. 1 priority is to get good services to the public. That hasn't changed and that's what that statement was about — making sure that the public gets the best services possible."
The blog post came a week after one of Quebec's largest and sovereigntist-leaning labour federations dropped its long-standing endorsement of the federal Bloc Québécois, with some of its members shifting their support to the NDP.
Mulcair welcomed the news saying it made him "extremely proud" and that he would work hard to keep the support of such unions as the Quebec Federation of Labour.
The NDP leader was quick to add on Wednesday that his priorities also include reducing inequality and increasing opportunities. "That's what I've always worked towards and that's what I'll continue to work for."
Mulcair has said an NDP government would raise the corporate tax rate to pay for social programs like its proposed $15-a-day national childcare program. It would also restore door-to-door mail delivery and cut taxes for small and medium businesses.
Reaction on social media
Mulcair's 2001 remarks elicited a wide array of reaction on social media.
Jean-François Lisée, a member of the Quebec National Assembly for the separatist Parti Québécois, said "When Tom Mulcair cited Thatcher as an example to denounce social-democratic policies! Astonishing read."
Quand Tom Mulcair citait Thatcher en exemple pour dénoncer les politiques social-démocrates ! Lecture ahurissante ! http://t.co/vfP3zwibAa— @JFLisee
Patrick Lagacé, a journalist for Montreal's French newspaper La Presse, posted the 30-second video on Twitter saying, "Mulcair was full of praise for Thatcher, the bane of the left. Surprising!"
Député d'opposition PLQ, M. Mulcair ne tarissait pas d'éloges pr Thatcher, bête noire de la gauche. Étonnant! (2001) pic.twitter.com/2OX3gUE89W— @kick1972
Others wondered what the unions who support Mulcair's New Democrats and the party's base would have to say about his admiration for Thatcher's policies.
Some political observers, outside of Quebec, did not see Mulcair's comments as a liability.
Not sure why anyone should be horrified if Mulcair admired Thatcher at the beginning.— @mdentandt
Some cartoonists had fun with Mulcair's comments. Yannick Lemay, who works for the newspaper Journal de Montréal under the pen-name of YGreck, created this image.
Mulcair resigned from Jean Charest's Liberal cabinet in 2006.
A year later, he was elected in a byelection as an NDP MP in the riding of Outremont.
In 2012, he won the leadership of the party.