Tom Mulcair's soft side on display as NDP gather

The federal NDP are facing some challenges as they meet this weekend, including how to make leader Tom Mulcair a friendly face, and how to stave off a new Liberal leader being announced just after the convention ends.

Speech by NDP leader to feature family as party prepares to face Tories, new Liberal leader

The federal NDP are facing some challenges as they meet this weekend, including how to make leader Tom Mulcair a friendly face, and how to stave off a new Liberal leader being announced just after the convention ends. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal NDP are facing several challenges as they meet this weekend in Montreal, including how to make party leader Tom Mulcair a friendlier face, and how to stave off a new Liberal leader who will be announced just after their convention ends.

It was just over a year ago that Mulcair was crowned the leader of the Official Opposition. One goal of this weekend’s convention will be to showcase a different side of him.

The Conservatives have tried to play up his reputation as "Angry Tom," even tweeting a Seinfeld clip from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's account to tease Mulcair about his temper.

The party's offering a few chances for people to get to know Mulcair, including a live town hall on Friday night where people can submit questions by Twitter, and in a video introduction before his Saturday afternoon speech in front of 2,100 delegates.

The video will cast Mulcair as a family man, showcasing his background as one of the oldest of 10 children and featuring his adult sons and other family members, as well as some of the staff he's worked with over the years. Mulcair's wife Catherine Pinhas will introduce him before the speech.

Party spokesman Nathan Rotman says people normally get to know party leaders during an election.

"He's been leader for a year so there are some great things that we'd like to highlight more of," he said, adding the party also wants to showcase some of the New Democrat MPs, "showcasing the strength and depth of our caucus."

Mulcair will be subject to a confidence vote Saturday morning, with the results expected around noon.

This convention, the first since Mulcair’s leadership victory, could highlight a traditional tension within the party between members who want to see the party keep its socialist roots and the leadership, who can see the party moving ever closer to the possibility of taking power and want to steer closer to the political centre.

The proposed change to the party's preamble — to remove a reference to socialism — isn't the only place that could see that tension arise. The party is dealing on Friday afternoon with energy issues that are bound to touch on the oilsands. That could spark a debate over whether Mulcair should be more vocal in condemning their development.

While the NDP leadership leans more to the centre than to the left in order to appeal to more voters, the socialist caucus is there at every convention to remind the party of its roots.

"It's going to struggle," said Claude Denis, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa and a member of the NDP.

"[Power is] far from guaranteed, but it's especially hard to make an argument for ideological purity at the time when you seem to be just on the verge of winning an election."

The shift to the centre, he added, dates back to when Ed Broadbent led the party in the 1980s.

Alice Funke, an NDP member who writes the popular Pundits' Guide blog, says the influence of the socialist wing of the party's membership has always been overstated, "but it's always been over-represented at the policy convention."

The votes on the resolutions, including the change to the preamble of the constitution, will be held Sunday morning.

Making gains

Nearly two years after the party's "orange crush" election gains in Quebec, and with more than half the 100-MP caucus coming from the province, one of the party's challenges will be to hang onto those seats while attracting more voters from the rest of Canada.

Denis says the party is well-positioned to keep most of its gains in Quebec.

"The question is how to build in other parts of the country. It includes the West. It includes Ontario, and even parts of the Atlantic provinces," he said.

"What the party needs to have, which it hasn't quite found yet, is a way to articulate its Quebec policy such that it makes sense to all Canadians that this is good for Canada, it's not just good for Quebec."

Last month, Mulcair called for a west-to-east oilsands pipeline, arguing Canada should keep its bitumen in the country for domestic refining and use. His careful refusal to condemn the oilsands angered some people in the party, but doesn't go far enough for others.

Denis says the danger on the oilsands is for the party to be portrayed as anti-western.

"And here the issue really is that the West is not united in general and it's certainly not united behind the oilsands development. There's a lot of people in the West who are in fact very skeptical, if not outright opposed to it. And that's a natural constituency for the NDP."

The Trudeau factor

The NDP will be careful, however, not to detract from Mulcair's policy knowledge as it portrays his softer side. It's a careful positioning to place him between Harper, who is seen as cold, and Justin Trudeau, the perceived frontrunner in the Liberal leadership race, who is more publicly emotional.  

A few hours after the NDP wrap up their convention, the federal Liberals will announce the winner of their party's leadership race

The NDP are likely to be watching Trudeau closely, with some recent polls putting the Liberals ahead of the Official Opposition in popularity.

Denis says the party has to keep its eye on Trudeau as the Liberals start rebuilding their machine — their network — across the country.

"Not just in terms of how Trudeau comes across. We know he's likeable that way," Denis said.

"The NDP has to be ready to face whatever [the Liberals] have to bring."

Funke says it's too early to know which leader will prove more popular, but by the fall the parties will have to reorganize themselves to take into account the 30 new ridings being added across the country.

"They've got to reform 338 riding associations," Funke said.

"It's a lot of work. That's how I will tell who's strong on the ground."