NDP Leader Lorraine Michael summed up the tone of Saturday night’s fundraising dinner, as she introduced federal Leader Tom Mulcair.
“We’re in the big leagues now,” Michael said. “We all know what happened in October. We broke through. We broke through in a way that we hoped would happen, but until it happens, it isn’t there.”
Roughly 200 people shelled out $150 for a dinner and a chance to hear Mulcair speak in the province for the first time since he was elected leader of the federal party.
Plenty of longtime party members were among the crowd, but there was also a distinct feeling this was the new New Democratic Party.
“If you look around the room, the faces are changing,” St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Ryan Cleary said. “There are people here at this event, for example, that I’ve never seen before, that I’ve never met before. It’s changing in that the base is growing, the foundation is growing.”
Mulcair’s speech focused on a progressive view of the economy, saying Canada should be doing more to process its natural resources rather than shipping raw bitumen, lumber and fish out of the country.
Mulcair also hit on several local issues, condemning Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the closure of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s, and decrying the closure of fish plants.
“We’re now seeing more and more of the catch off your coast shipped to China for processing while we have plants here that lay idle,” he said. “There’s something seriously wrong with us as a nation; this is Third World behaviour.”
Mulcair also emphasized his message Canada should be forcing oil producers in Alberta to pay for all of the environmental costs of the bitumen they’re extracting.
“We want development, but we want to make sure that we assume in our generation responsibility for what we’re doing. We want trade, but we want equitable fair trade,” he said.
“Right now we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs because we’re not including the environmental costs in the product that we’re selling from the oil sands. These are basic principles of sustainable development, like polluter pay.”
His message was condemned by the federal Conservative Party. In anticipation of Mulcair arriving in the province, Labrador MP Peter Penashue issued a release attacking him.
“Thomas Mulcair wants to shut down the responsible development of our resources and kill jobs,” Penashue said. “Perhaps he’s just blissfully ignorant, but many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians work in Alberta and other provinces in the oil and gas industry to support their loved ones here in our province.”
Speaking to reporters Saturday night, Mulcair shrugged off the attack.
“I was a little bit surprised because Peter Penashue used to be a fairly progressive fellow,” Mulcair said. “I was disappointed to see that he’s lowering himself to parroting the sentences that are written out on a piece of paper for him by the people in the Prime Minister’s office.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Mulcair’s speech, though, was when he waded into St. John’s municipal politics, endorsing Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary for mayor.
O’Leary is widely expected to run for mayor in the 2013 municipal election. She’s said she’s thinking about it, but hasn’t made any formal commitment.
That didn’t stop Mulcair from calling her “one of the most extraordinary politicians I’ve met in a long time” and endorsing her for mayor.
“I promise you I’ll be back, of course, many times to Newfoundland and Labrador, but I’ll really promise you I’ll be back to make sure that Sheilagh O’Leary is the next mayor of St. John’s,” he said.
O’Leary laughed it off, saying that it feels good to have a political heavyweight in her corner.
“I’m so ecstatic to have the kind of support from a national leader like Tom Mulcair behind me. It’s just incredible that he would have that kind of confidence in me to run for the office of mayor,” she said. “I absolutely am thinking about it for sure, and it’s a year and a half down the road. We’ll see what happens.”