Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair talked his way into inevitable criticism of the oil sands this past weekend. Speaking on CBC Radio’s The House, Mr. Mulcair suggested that the development of the oil sands is contributing to a strong Canadian dollar, and thus hurting the industrial manufacturing sector in other provinces (also known as “Dutch Disease“).
The comments earned harsh criticism from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.
Calgary economist Jack Mintz pointed out that the manufacturing industry malaise in Central Canada and the Mid-West United States has less to do with the western provinces and is almost entirely a result of an automotive industry that failed to compete with its international competitors.
The natural resource wealth in Alberta and Saskatchewan and the shift of political power westward may redefine Canadian politics in the next decade. The industrial base in the oil sands is driving the national economy and poses a great challenge to the traditional economic dominance of Ontario and Quebec, where the NDP found the majority of its political support in the May 2011 federal election.
Speaking from his experience as a provincial cabinet minister in Quebec, I must believe that Mr. Mulcair has a better grasp of economic issues than even most of our federal politicians. Realistically, it probably would not have mattered what Mr. Mulcair said about the oil sands. Had Mr. Mulcair said he liked the oil sands, his Conservative critics would have decried him for not declaring his love for the oil sands.
Mr. Mulcair’s NDP faces a number of political challenges in preparation for the 2015 election, including expanding its support between the British Columbia and Ontario boundaries, where the party elected only three Members of Parliament in the last federal election. For the past twenty-years, the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance, and now the Conservative Party of Canada led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper have held an electoral monopoly over the region.
The federal NDP base of support in Western Canada, which sent strong contingents of New Democrats to Ottawa in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, was weakened due to changing electoral boundaries and evaporated after finding itself on the unpopular side of wedge issues successfully leveraged by Conservative parties in rural areas. In 2011, as the Orange Wave swept Quebec and formed Official Opposition in Ottawa for the first time, the NDP placed a distant second in the West.
While his provincial counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan have been relegated to the political margins, the electoral success of the provincial NDP in Manitoba, which has formed moderate centrist governments since the late 1990’s could provide a template for electoral growth in the West.