NDP's Tom Mulcair talks conservatively

Tom Mulcair boasts that he often sounds more like a conservative than Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

It may seem an odd thing for the leader of a social democratic party to brag about.

But for the NDP leader, it's part of his mission to prove to Canadians that New Democrats aren't the wild-eyed, reckless taxers and spenders of lore.

Indeed, he maintains that's a more apt description of Harper's Conservatives, whom he accuses of racking up a huge environmental, economic and social debt that future generations will have to pay off.

"What's a paradox ... is that these are essentially conservative themes that I'm evoking in the sense that it would be very conservative to say, 'Don't look for a handout, be self-reliant, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, all that sort of stuff," Mulcair said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.

"But what the Conservatives are doing is living off the credit card of our grandchildren ... and I think that's wrong."

Mulcair still emphasizes traditional NDP issues: sustainable development and the need to reduce social inequalities. But he's framing them in conservative language, essentially arguing that intergenerational equity requires the current generation to carry its own weight.

"When we use a theme like that, the wording is almost conservative, right?" he said.

"But the Conservatives are the ones who are not following it. We're the ones who are saying be prudent public administrators and they're the ones saying, 'We're going to sole source a $40-billion (stealth fighter jet) contract, we won't even go to the lowest bidder.'"

Mulcair's terminology reflects a frank political calculation that New Democrats must overcome lingering doubts about their economic management skills if they hope to realize their dream of forming government after the next election.

"We have to reach out beyond our traditional base," Mulcair said, explaining his strategy.

"If we want to form a government, we've got to, of course, convince our base that we can deliver on what have been long-standing policies and views. But we've also got to make Canadians understand that we're confident about our ability to deliver good, competent public administration.

"We're asking Canadians in the next election to do something they've never done before, which is to give the NDP the keys to the store, to say, 'Okay, we're going to trust you to run a very complex economy, a very complex public administration."

To that end, Mulcair has focused heavily on economic issues since taking the NDP helm last March. He estimated about 60 per cent of his interventions in question period each day have been devoted to the economy and jobs.

He's also adopted a more open posture on trade, supporting the only free trade deal that's come up for ratification since he succeeded the late Jack Layton and urging expedited negotiations with Japan.

"So those are themes that we maybe didn't spend as much time on in the past as we do now and that's probably ... one of the biggest changes" under his leadership, he said.

The Conservatives, no slouches at framing their political rivals, have fought back by doubling down on charges that Mulcair is a typical anti-business, anti-trade, tax-and-spend socialist.

In recent days, the Tories have also begun poking at what they evidently perceive as another NDP weak spot: Mulcair's alleged volcanic temper. Mulcair declined to discuss his role in a recent verbal dust-up with the government's House leader, Peter Van Loan.

The Tories allege that Mulcair blew his top and swore at Van Loan, although video shows Van Loan initiated the contretemps, storming across the centre aisle in the Commons to confront Mulcair. Van Loan has apologized for using inappropriate language and called on Mulcair to do the same.

For the most part, however, Mulcair has not let any of the Tory attacks get under his skin; he's largely ignored them and stuck doggedly to his own agenda.

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