Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Black ops: How the Liberals just happened to have some dirt on Tom Mulcair

Don't think for a moment that a Tom Mulcair comment from years ago surfaced by accident, writes Anthony Germain.

Tom Mulcair, the 'Newfie' thing and how the game is played

During a campaign stop in St. John's, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair issued a full apology for having once used the phrase 'Newfie' during a debate in the Quebec legislature. (CBC)

After Tom Mulcair awkwardly found himself apologizing in St John's for a stupid "Newfie" joke, I called an old friend of mine who used to (and probably still does) work black ops for the federal Liberals.

"Black ops?" you ask.

Sure, each party has a team connected to its respective war room tasked with a nasty job: Dig up dirt to be flung at an opportune time.

Richard Nixon's boys had a less dignified term for his black ops teams in the 1970s: "Rat Muckers." The second word wasn't "'muckers."

It happens by design

The Liberals found a crafty way to rat muck Tom Mulcair in Newfoundland. Here's how it worked:

1. Some time ago, a Liberal rat mucker on the mainland dug up the remark Mulcair made in 1996 at a committee hearing of Quebec's provincial legislature. (Effective rat muckers keep binders of this kind of dirt.)

2.  A dignified leader never rat mucks. However, people close to or in the inner campaign circle do authorize the missions. In this case, the Newfie joke rat muck was handed to Nick Whalen, the Liberal candidate in St. John's East. (This seems likely unless you believe Whalen peruses arcane Hansard highlights – in French — of obscure National Assembly committee hearings from the 1990s.) The rat muckers instruct Whalen to make the joke public shortly before Tom Mulcair speaks at the Sheraton. And, natch, an indignant demand for an apology is made. 

3. While Mulcair announces (or re-announces) a number of NDP policies, such as re-establishing search and rescue in this province, $15-a-day daycare, it all turns into yadda, yadda, yadda … because Mulcair has no choice but to apologize for a stupid comment he made two decades ago.

4. Meanwhile, in Mount Pearl, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau does not answer questions from reporters after his event with local candidate Seamus O'Regan.

The outcome: By default (and by black ops design), without a Justin clip to ponder, the media focus for the Sunday-Monday news cycle concentrates exclusively on Mulcair's Newfie joke and the apology. 

Political craftiness

There is a craftiness in political black ops one almost has to admire as it applies to the game side of politics; not the policy, not the public service, not the good upon which so many candidates campaign, but the game.

If there's a rat-mucking lesson in the Mulcair-Trudeau trips to Newfoundland perhaps it's this: The needs of the leaders' tour trump those of the local candidate.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is seen during a Liberal rally in Mount Pearl last Sunday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau, reporters were told, did not scrum in St. John's because he scrummed in Halifax earlier that day. Imagine telling Montreal journalists, "No, sorry, Justin's not taking any questions in Quebec today because he took questions this morning in Toronto."

Had Trudeau taken questions, he might have said, "People in St. John's South-Mount Pearl are going to see how strong Seamus O'Regan is when he debates Ryan Cleary next week." 

Or, the young Liberal leader might have found other ways to engage with local reporters to show some knowledge of Newfoundland issues and otherwise enhance O'Regan's candidacy.

But that would have undermined the black ops mission: Rat-mucking Mulcair during the two leaders' simultaneous electoral trips to Newfoundland was a greater priority than bolstering Seamus O'Regan. 

And if you think black ops don't work, ask yourself this: Just what did Tom Mulcair talk about during his policy speech in St. John's?


Anthony Germain hosts Here & Now in Newfoundland and Labrador. He is a former host of the St. John's Morning Show and CBC Radio's The House, and is CBC's former correspondent in China.


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