Tom Mulcair says his legacy is to leave next NDP leader a truly national party

Tom Mulcair says he will leave the helm of the federal New Democratic Party confident that he helped secure a permanent base for the party in his home province of Quebec.

Jack Layton asked him to help break through in Quebec, 'and that's what we accomplished'

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair could see his successor named as early as Sunday. Mulcair says he will leave confident that he helped secure a permanent base for the party in Quebec. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Tom Mulcair says he will leave the helm of the federal New Democratic Party confident that he helped secure a permanent base for the party in his home province of Quebec.

Mulcair — dressed in a suit, orange tie and cowboy boots ("It's the most comfortable footwear there is") — sat down with CBC Radio's The House this week as the NDP prepares to release the first-ballot results in the race to succeed him following the party's disappointing third-place finish in the 2015 election.

Four candidates, Niki Ashton, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron and Jagmeet Singh, are on the ballot.

As he often does, Mulcair spoke fondly of being recruited to run in Quebec by former leader Jack Layton, and being given the task of helping to make the NDP a political player in a province that had only once elected a New Democrat to the House of Commons.

"When Jack tapped me, he said, 'You can help us break through.' He knew about the progressive side of Quebec politics, he was convinced we could break through, and that's what we accomplished."

Mulcair won a byelection in Outremont in 2007. Four years later the party won 58 seats in the province, surprising all the pundits, as the so-called Orange Crush propelled the NDP to 103 seats nationally and to the Official Opposition for the first time in its history.

Those were heady days. But the euphoria didn't last. Layton succumbed to cancer a few months later, and the support from 2011 didn't carry over under Mulcair in 2015.

Even so, he believes the party's presence in Quebec is his most important contribution.

'Beyond our wildest dreams'

"Now, 2011 was beyond our wildest dreams with the numbers that we got. But today, in 2017, we have 16 strong members of Parliament for the NDP in the province of Quebec," Mulcair says.

"You could not claim to be a national party, you could not hope to be one, without that breakthrough in Quebec. And that's what Jack and I both understood intimately. For us to have that presence today, I think that's the best heritage we can be leaving to our next leader, and I'm very proud of that."

Mulcair worked with late leader Jack Layton to lay the groundwork for a breakthrough in Quebec that saw 59 New Democrats elected in 2011. That number has since fallen to 16, but Mulcair says the party's strong presence in Quebec is a solid legacy. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Mulcair brushes aside polls that suggest the NDP remains a distant third among decided voters, and that support for the party has weakened in Quebec.

"The arrival of a new leader always produces a bump in those same polls. There will be a lot of interest around that new leader, whomever she or he might happen to be, and we will all rally around that leader."

He's similarly unconcerned that Quebec represents only four per cent of the 124,000 paid-up party members across the country, because it's the only province without a provincial wing of the party.

The outgoing leader of the NDP talks about the state of the party as he gets ready to hand the reins over to somebody else. 17:45

What's next for NDP and Mulcair?

If Mulcair is still stinging from the rebuke of losing a leadership review a year and a half ago, he isn't showing it.

He says the new leader will inherit a well-run caucus and political office staffed by workers who just signed a new collective agreement as the only unionized political staff on the Hill.

He believes the party has performed solidly in the House, challenging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's progressive credentials over trade negotiations, income equality and, most of all, climate change.

For a politician tagged with the moniker Angry Tom for his occasional outbursts at political foes, he's now sanguine, if still a bit reluctant to discuss his legacy as leader.

"I believe firmly, profoundly, that the NDP offer is unique in Canada," he says, taking the blame for the NDP's failure to "close the deal" with voters in the last election despite taking an early lead in the unusually long campaign.

Mulcair, known as a strong performer in question period, now faces another decision: to seek opportunities beyond the House of Commons or serve out his term as MP for Outremont. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"I think the Canadian public is looking at the NDP again and saying, 'Maybe they can do it.' And if enough people who have progressive views get disappointed that the Liberals aren't delivering, maybe we can close [an election win]."

The NDP is using a ranked preferential ballot to choose the next leader. If there's no clear winner this weekend, members can change their rankings and vote again. The results of the second ballot will be released Thanksgiving weekend.

As for his own future, Mulcair says he's weighing offers from universities, but plans to remain in the Commons until at least Christmas. He wants to help his successor, without getting in the way.

But he also wants to honour his commitment to voters in Outremont, to serve out his term as MP.

Of all the decisions he's faced, it seems choosing when to leave will be the toughest.

Tom Mulcair looks ahead to party's future

4 years ago
'We're going to turn the page and rally around the new leader,' says the outgoing NDP leader. 7:14


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.