“Tom Mulcair is trying to be everything to everyone” (The National Post)

While one can understand Mulcair's desire to reclaim front-runner status, talking out of both sides of his mouth is no way to achieve it. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)

Tasha Kheiriddin (The National Post):

Riding high in the polls at the start of an election campaign is never a good thing, because it inflates expectations. It imposes a type of “front runner chill,” making the party leading in the polls more cautious. It also encourages its adversaries to take more risks and go the extra mile to tear the leader down. When you have little to lose, you’ll play harder, dirtier and meaner. And every bit of drama, from bozo candidate eruptions to slip-ups in debates, makes twice the headlines.

This explains Le Journal de Montréal’s scathing piece this week, entitled Pinocchio, in which commentator Stephane Gobeil accuses NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair of being a liar, over a comment he made in the Radio Canada French leaders’ debate last week. When asked by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe whether he was present at the giant “No” rally in Montreal during the 1995 Quebec referendum, Mulcair answered, “Me, I was at home.” But Mulcair had been quoted by writers Chantal Hebert and Jean Lapierre in their book The Morning After as saying, “We were all there, the day of the famous rally,” a fact also noted this week by commentator Michel David in Le Devoir.

Why would the NDP leader fib about his federalist past? Because he desperately needs to shore up his nationalist vote in Fortress Quebec if he is to keep 50+ seats in the province. In the past week, four separate polls show the NDP dropping in the province, with the Bloc and the Conservatives gaining ground. Driving these numbers is Mulcair’s declaration that he supports the right of women to wear the niqab during a citizenship ceremony. This position is anathema in Quebec, where all provincial parties endorse a bill requiring people to uncover their faces in any dealings with the state. Even several federal NDP candidates oppose the niqab, including Romeo Saganash, who describes it as “the oppressor’s clothing.”

But lying isn’t Mulcair’s only problem. Silence is too. At this week’s Munk debate on foreign policy, two words were noticeably absent: Saudi Arabia. Contrast that with the lively exchange in the French debate, in which Duceppe and Mulcair both took Prime Minister Stephen Harper to task for selling arms to a country that finances terrorism and violates human rights. Harper defended the deal by describing Saudi Arabia as an ally and saying that it would “not be right to punish workers in a factory in London for this.” After the debate, Mulcair told reporters that Ottawa should question the country’s human rights record, and that an NDP government would consider such matters when signing any arms agreements.

That was last week. This week, those workers, and their votes, have the NDP singing a different tune. That’s because UNIFOR, the country’s largest private-sector union, took Mulcair to the woodshed over his comments. In the not-so-subtle words of Fergo Berto, UNIFOR director for London,“We asked the NDP to not make this an issue, that it be kept under wraps. There are a lot of issues out there to be talking about.” He added that UNIFOR President Jerry Dias also spoke to Mulcair over the weekend, after the debate.

And while the New Democrats are zipping their lips on Saudi Arabia, they are opening up on the sanctity of public-sector jobs. This week Ottawa-area NDP candidate Paul Dewar laid out a six-point plan to “fix” the public service, saying that federal workers have been “neglected, undermined and abused by brutal cuts and restrictive legislation under both Liberal and Conservative administrations.” He added: “What we really need to see from whatever government comes in is to stop this whiplash of hiring and firing people. We need stability in the public service.” Translation: no more cuts and fewer temporary workers. But wait a minute — isn’t the NDP also promising to balance the books while increasing spending in areas like daycare? And won’t that be impossible unless they, er, cut somewhere else?

While one can understand Mulcair’s desire to reclaim front-runner status, talking out of both sides of his mouth is no way to achieve it. He wants to please several competing sets of voters at once, namely Quebec nationalists and Canadian federalists, progressive leftists and union members, public servants and fans of fiscal responsibility. Problem is, the fault lines run all over the place on issues such as the niqab, pipelines, manufacturing jobs, deficits and the size of government. Unless Mulcair picks one set of voters over the other, as U.S. President Barack Obama did when he chose environmentalists over Big Labour on Keystone XL, he risks constantly contradicting himself. And no one’s going to make Pinocchio the prime minister.