Thomas Mulcair just can’t win. First, he tried to distinguish himself from other New Democrats though a mix of centrist politics, in the hopes of becoming a kind of NDP “Tony Blair”. That hasn’t worked out as well as hoped, failing to impress critics on his left and right, but ya know what they say about trying to please everybody…

That being said, he’s impressed me more over the past week than the entire rest of his tenure as leader combined, but that doesn’t say a lot. First, there’s his supportive statements toward Gary Freeman, extradited for a shootout with police dating back to 1969. Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney had branded Freeman a “Black Panther” and a “cop killer” in parliament, opposing his re-admission to Canada on “terrorist” grounds. As Mulcair (and even his American prosecutors) point out, there’s no evidence he was a Panther and only managed to hit the officer in the arm. Also worth mentioning is that Canada doesn’t officially consider the Panthers a “terrorist” group, and doesn’t seem to have a problem allowing Angela Davis to cross the border for a speaking engagement here next week.

Mulcair’s recent troubles, though, relate directly to one issue: pipelines. He recently made the trip to Washington, as so many other Canadian politicians have done recently. Unlike the rest, though, he didn’t pressure Obama to sign off on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Instead he warned about climate change and the economic plight of Eastern Canada. These remarks have not been well received across Canada, infuriating premiers like Alberta’s Alison Redford (Cons.) and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall (NDP), as well as many federal politicians and media across the country. Viewed as scandalous, possibly treasonous, he’s accused of “not acting in Canada’s best interest”.

Now, as Mulcair and others have pointed out, there is nothing particularly scandalous about the Leader of the Official Opposition choosing to oppose government plans, even while abroad. That’s his job, and it’s the same thing Harper did when he held the position. So why is Mulcair in the spotlight? Because he criticized the Tar Sands, and chose one of the worst possible times to do it. Obama is heavily conflicted over the Keystone XL Pipeline – on one hand, he obviously wants to allow it. On the other, a very large part of his (possibly former) supporters are staunchly opposed to it, to the point where they regularly show up outside the White House in the tens of thousands, and line up by the thousands to be arrested just to make their point.

What makes this “scandal” all the more laughable is that Mulcair isn’t even “against” the Tar Sands – he simply favours a (longer) eastern route for the bitumen, hopefully involving some refining jobs along the way. For him, this might be an alternative, but for the industry itself, it would be a bitter compromise. They’ve been demanding the western (Gateway), eastern (Line 9, etc) and southern (Keystone) and more for years, with dreams including the infamous McKenzie valley pipeline proposal, Arctic shipping hubs and nuclear reactors in the oil patch. Whether or not other routes are constructed, the loss of Keystone would severely limit these ambitions, cutting billions or more out of projected profits.

These potential profits are increasingly becoming Canada’s new political Holy Grail – sought by all with the power to cure all ills. Far more than just the money, this development offers valuable political currency as well, such as the ability to fund budgets without unpopular tax rates and the massive number of new jobs created. Alberta, over the last decade, has shown how this can drive both economic prosperity and national political dominance, with our Prime Minister coming straight from the heart of Calgary’s financial district. Seeing this success in contrast to stagnating manufacturing in central Canada or collapsed fisheries in the east, many are hoping for a piece of this pie, whether it be in taxes, transfer payments, refining jobs or their own new dramatic resource extraction projects like Plan Nord and the “Ring of Fire”.

As many have noted, there’s plenty of precedent for what happens when nations become overly reliant on new oil revenues to pay their bills – it’s called the resource curse. Selling off natural capital to pay operating budgets can be a very popular move, as any number of Middle Eastern government officials can tell you, but what it does to the political process is usually downright ugly (as you’ll hear from most of their people). Excepting a few who’ve opted to charge high royalties and save large funds (ie: Norway), most lead an ugly path toward despotism, environmental destruction and/or war. Alberta’s financial strategy, of course, is the latter – charging low royalties and saving little for the future. The increasingly shrill cries over the fate of the Tar Sands from politicians across the spectrum and the big national papers only underscores how much these revenues are now being coveted. The more serious effects, though, are now being seen in widespread attempts to muzzle federal employees such as scientists, and now even Librarians. That the leader of the Official Opposition is not even “allowed” to threaten this agenda is telling, and it’s to his credit that he did it anyway. Whether it will have any impact remains to be seen.

It won’t be all that long until we have another election, and for once, it seems like the NDP might be fielding a serious contender. Harper and Mulcair are now roughly tied in polls approval ratings (though Harper leads by a distance at disapproval). Barring the entry of a certain political dynasty, Mulcair stands a chance of becoming our next Prime Minister, and it’s still hard to tell what that might mean. These latest moves have given me more hope than most so far, but I must admit, I’m still apprehensive. There’s a good interview with local Professor and notorious activist Kevin McKay on the subject which just came on CFMU’s Progressive Voices the other day, which articulates these concerns well. If “winning” means making big sacrifices in the party’s traditional beliefs, is it really winning? On the other hand, after all these years of Harper, I’d almost settle for Bob Rae. Such are the limitations of electoral politics.

The real battles with the Tar Sands are taking place at the local and grassroots levels right now, on both sides of the border. Through a growing network of civic action and civil disobedience, these pipelines and others are being challenged across North America (did you know Hamilton’s Council discussed Line 9 today?). Left to their own devices, there are few if any who’d stand up to the allure of petro-profits from the Tar Sands and it’s subsidiaries, but the growing popular pressure is proving difficult to ignore. Instead of a debate over who or where gets this infrastructure and the associated risks and profits, it’s starting to verge on a debate about whether we want this disastrous gigaproject to happen at all. That might be the conversation they’re afraid of, but it’s also the one we need to be having right now.