Thursday, March 29, 2012

Setting the agenda

Quick, spot what's different in the NDP's response to the federal budget compared to any other official opposition ever:
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair today slammed Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for introducing a budget that recklessly cuts the vital services that Canadians rely on—such as Old Age Security and health care.

“Stephen Harper promised jobs and growth, but delivered reckless cuts. There’s nothing on jobs, nothing on inequality and nothing to strengthen our front-line health services.” Mulcair said. “Mr. Harper is once again looking out for his friends, while he ignores growing inequality.”
That's right: Thomas Mulcair has wasted absolutely no time in turning inequality into the NDP's primary economic focus. And there are plenty of ways that choice may shape Canadian politics for years to come.

To start with, it should work wonders in dispelling any remaining concerns about Mulcair's policy direction for the NDP. In the leadership campaign, it was Brian Topp who spoke constantly about working toward greater equality - and it may be that Mulcair figured he didn't want to echo a rival's message. But the theme figures to be the best possible unifying principle both for the NDP's base, and for progressive voters not yet inside the party's tent.

Meanwhile, the quick choice of messages also helps to put Mulcair's honeymoon phase to the best possible use in converting immediate positive perceptions into longer-term policy impact. Where past opposition leaders haven't been particularly focused in using their newfound place in the spotlight to any great impact, Mulcair has wasted no time in choosing a direction to promote.

But wait, there's more - as Mulcair hasn't picked just any policy to push after ascending to the leadership. Instead, of all the possible themes associated with the economy, inequality looks to be the absolute best in drawing positive contrasts no matter what happens between now and 2015.

It's possible that factors largely outside the federal government's control could move job numbers, GDP, deficits or other measures in either direction - meaning that there's substantial risk for any party in trying to point to those factors as the main indicator of the Harper Cons' impact. But with the Cons working as deliberately as they are to place a thumb on the scale in favour of those who already have the most, there's something close to zero likelihood that the NDP won't be able to point to worsening inequality as an indicator of the Cons' actions while in power. And if voters reach the ballot box with inequality as their top-of-mind concern...well, that's almost certainly the ideal end result for the NDP.

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