April 14, 2014 12:27 pm
Updated: April 14, 2014 3:06 pm

Lunch with NDP director Anne McGrath: on Tom Mulcair’s humour, Trudeau’s ‘inconsistencies,’ and Conservative scandal

Newly appointed NDP Executive Director Anne McGrath is shown in Ottawa, Sunday, April 6, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
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OTTAWA – For the New Democrats, the 2015 federal election will be all about Thomas Mulcair.

And so for Anne McGrath, the veteran organizer brought in to run the campaign, that means showcasing the loquacious leader’s lighter side.

“He has a very charming ability to be sometimes self-deprecating, to be humorous, you know there’s lots of examples of that,” says McGrath, the party’s newly-minted dual campaign- and national director.

Oh. Do tell.

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“I don’t know if you saw the Rick Mercer one where he did the zip-lining,” she says.

Referencing Mulcair’s federal council speech earlier this month, McGrath smiles at the way Mulcair recited his 10 family members off the top of his head.  “He named them all off really quickly,” she beams.

And, for effect: “There’s a great photo of him when he’s in the Yukon of a dog licking his face.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the images suggest a happy Tom – not the ‘angry Tom’, a nickname christened by Mulcair’s critics.

McGrath herself is the picture of poise: as succinct as her short blonde hair, as elegant as her green chandelier earrings. The mother of four is polite, pleasant and gives absolutely nothing away.

And while she may want to focus on the funny, her return to the party suggests the NDP is getting serious about the next election.

“T-minus 559,” says McGrath, taking a bite of a Mediterranean salad with chicken.

The budding message of the nascent campaign will be to set Mulcair apart from the other leaders: Prime Minister Stephen Harper and, particularly, Liberal Justin Trudeau.

“Tom Mulcair has experience. He’s progressive, he’s moderate, and he has the ability to be the prime minister,” she says.

McGrath praises Mulcair’s performance in question period – “he’s been very competently dismantling the Harper government” – even as she admits most Canadians aren’t paying attention.

“While they may not care about the details of Parliament, obviously they do care that they have local members of Parliament who care about them and their issues,” she says.

So could we see Mulcair’s question period interrogation in a political advertisement? “Potentially yeah, but I mean I don’t know yet.”

On this particularly rainy Ottawa day, however, the NDP is dominating the day’s political agenda – for the wrong reason.

The board of internal economy, the all-party body that sets the rules for MPs’ spending, ordered the NDP to stop using parliamentary resources for satellite party offices in Montreal and Toronto. The party was also preparing an office in Saskatchewan, despite having no MPs there.

But for McGrath, the decision proves that the Conservative government “is operating in an incredibly partisan way.”

“The Board of Internal Economy has admitted that we were compliant with all the rules, and therefore has changed them in order to try and advantage the government and disadvantage the opposition,” says McGrath.

“The fact that they are doing this only points out to me that they’re worried about us, that they see our strength, and that they’re trying to find whatever ways they can to stop us.”

McGrath says the party is examining the “opportunities” such a decision affords.

And what are they?

“I haven’t figured that out yet, but I will.”

‘Elections campaigns are about choices’

With 57 of the NDP’s 100 MPs coming from Quebec, the province will prove a crucial battleground for next year’s election – especially for the opposition parties.

McGrath doesn’t buy the suggestion that Quebecers only voted for Layton in 2011.

But as she makes her argument, she repeatedly recites the late leader’s qualities.

“People were very attracted to Jack Layton, but they were also attracted to him because of his principles, his values, his positions, his experience, his history as a fighter for everyday people,” she says.

“All of that is intricately tied up with his politics, right? And that’s absolutely what we’re finding, and we will be building on that for sure.”

McGrath says it’s too early to tell what the fallout from last week’s provincial election will be, although she believes Quebecers share the NDP’s progressive values.

“As the axis shifts from federalist/sovereigntist to kind of more left/right, that is something that will be extremely beneficial for us,” she says.

But McGrath says what really matters in modern-day campaigns is the leader. And the NDP plans to highlight the “contrast” between the three parties.

“Election campaigns are about choices, right, so you have to contrast with the other choices that are out there,” she says.

The Conservatives under Harper are increasingly “out of touch with Canadians,” McGrath insists.

“They have found themselves mired in scandal and corruption in the last little while, and it just seems to get deeper and deeper.”

But it’s the Liberals that draw most of the attention.

While never uttering Trudeau’s name, McGrath admits the third party has achieved “some success” under the new leader’s watch.

But Trudeau is adept at exposing his own vulnerabilities, she says, citing his comments about admiring China’s basic dictatorship as an example.

His move to kick senators out of his caucus, too, appears to be fodder for NDP attacks. McGrath notes the party’s Senators still consider themselves Liberals.

“I think the inconsistencies in what (Trudeau) did is part of the story about the kind of leader who makes a quick decision and doesn’t necessarily think through all the consequences,” she says.

McGrath also digs into the Liberals for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline. “They’re supporting a pipeline project that is condemned by the communities that it’s going to go through, that is going to be damaging to the environment, and that is going to export Canadian jobs, and it’s pretty hard to view that as progressive.”

But what if that’s how the Liberals define themselves to voters – as the progressive party?

Trudeau already struck a nerve when he quoted from Layton’s final letter to Canadians, which McGrath helped craft.

McGrath shifts in her seat, and tilts her body forward as if to emphasize the point.

“It’s not just about a personality, it’s also about the character, the values, the experience and the actions of someone,” says McGrath.

“That’s how you judge. And you can’t just, you know, take a couple of lines and pretend you have all those things.”

On not being ‘shady’

McGrath met Layton in 2001, when she ran into him and a mutual friend while walking down the street in Ottawa. She began working on his leadership campaign soon after, and later served as Layton’s chief of staff and director of political operations for the NDP.

“(Layton) had the kind of ideas that could reinvigorate the NDP, and could modernize it, that could bring it into being a contender in federal politics,” she says.

Originally from the Montreal/Ottawa area after immigrating from England, McGrath moved to Alberta in her early 20s to work in the student movement. She settled there for 20 years.

McGrath ran twice in Alberta in the 1990s for the federal NDP – a tough crowd amongst the reigning conservatives. “I thought it was important to present yourself, to present your ideas, to engage in the democratic process,” she says.

She also ran once for the Communist Party, in 1984 – a subject McGrath doesn’t seem keen to discuss.

“I was a student at the time, and you know, looking at different ideas.”

She spits out her olive pit.

“And, I evolved.”

Perhaps most telling of what the NDP is about, McGrath views her role through the prism of her social democratic values.

Unlike some party executives, who, say, allegedly meddle in their fiancés nominations, McGrath says she operates “in the most principled way that I know how.”

“I want us to win, I want us to be a government, because I want us to make a change in people’s lives. And I will do what I need to do to do that, but I will never cross the line,” she says, referencing the recent Dimitri Soudas and Eve Adams controversy.

“Anything that’s really kind of shady, ultimately damages you, but more importantly it damages your party and it damages people’s faith in you.”

Most of all, McGrath prides herself on defying expectations.

She likes to remind critics that going into the 2011 election, many were predicting her party’s demise.

It’s a cautionary tale for those who see the NDP as a one-hit Official Opposition wonder.

“When we won our seats, the predictions were that we’d melt down. That we had an inexperienced group of people, and that there were going to be all these mistakes,” she says.

“We have again proven everybody wrong.”

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