A large crowd of NDP supporters - 400 to 500 people - rallied Tuesday evening as their federal leader Tom Mulcair stopped in Hamilton as part of a pre-campaign campaign style sweep of Ontario.
Not since the 1993 election that saw the Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservative government caucus destroyed and left with only two seats in the House of Commons as the potential outcome of a federal election been open to so many possibilities. For all three official parties in the House of Commons, and the Green Party, there is much more at stake than just forming government or opposition: the future of the parties themselves could be in jeopardy if they lose their current seats.
It's the first time that the NDP is entering the election as official opposition - interchangeably called the "government-in-waiting" or "shadow-cabinet". The NDP is campaigning for government with reasonable expectations of winning. Sure, in the past the NDP leader was introduced as "Canada's Next Prime Minister" but every one knew the best the NDP could hope for was a large enough third-party caucus to be heard in a minority or bare-majority Parliament.
Polls - for what they are worth, which isn't much beyond providing a thread for narrative - are showing the NDP climbing following their decision to oppose the Harper Conservatives' anti-Charter Bill C51.
It is different for the NDP this time
You could see the difference as soon as the NDP announced the event - the Hamilton Convention Centre as venue. Not a union hall, the Convention Centre.
Stepping into the ballroom on the third floor, there was something different about the human backdrop behind Mulclair. This was not a typecast NDP rally. The advance team had pulled a good mix of people and didn't try to over manufacture the visual - other than the handed out placards for cheering - there were no thunderclap sticks, but plenty of orange t-shirts.
Behind the human backdrop, a giant Canadian flag. They wanted to project that Mulcair is Prime Ministerial. They even had the lighting right - the stage was set perfectly.
The Dress Rehearsal
Political rallies are about theatre and creating an experience that drives home a message or narrative.
The NDP could've bussed in more supporters, advertised more widely using targeted ads on Facebook and Twitter, and made this the defining stop of the Hamilton region campaign. They did not.
This was the full dress-rehearsal for a bigger rally during the fall campaign - Mulcair will be back to try winning Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas, Brant, and Niagara West. (The NDP already holds the three urban Hamilton ridings, Flamborough-Glanbrook is Conservative David Sweet's choose riding and his campaign machine is formidable)
The NDP needed the dress-rehearsal for the fall, tonight's performance didn't have flaws, but the crowd wasn't quick to respond to cues. The best comparison I can make is when the Roman Catholic Church changed the words in Mass. Roman Catholics had to change 40 years of response "and also with you" to "and with your spirit".
For the NDP, it is "Brothers and Sisters" and the recant "Shame" that are changing in use. They are still used - the NDP isn't betraying its roots or traditions - but not every mention of the other parties now ends with shame, not every reference to each other is brother and sister.
The NDP vernacular is reflecting the changes within the party that have occurred as society has changed. Labour is a big wing of the NDP, but it stands beside small business owners like Trevor Westerhoff who was their 2011 candidate in Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale.
Mulcair's speech often hailed small businesses - the true job creators, he said - as good and contrasted them with hand-out taking big business.
Small business, middle class, better targeting of government tax breaks to benefit those who need them, more support for municipalities ('Mayors like Fred Eisenberger' as Mulcair named dropped), $15 per day day care, environment protection, open government, a federal minimum wage. These were some of the items in the speech.
As Mulcair paused for applauds, there were times when the crowd response was delayed - a political party wants immediate response, and will fix this for the fall when the broadcast networks are live.
The loudest applauds from the crowd came when Mulcair promised to reverse Canada Post's decision to end door-to-door delivery - clearing an issue that touches a nerve with the NDP base in Hamilton.
Standing applauds were attempted a few times, but it wasn't until the exit that the entire crowd joined in. Another part of the political theatre they'll improve in fall.
Mulcair took on Prime Minister Stephen Harper citing ethics scandals, mismanagement, and failing the middle class. At the pauses, the crowd wasn't sure if they should respond with loud cries of "shame". The cries required someone to start and then the crowd joined in.
The NDP is no longer the party of frustration, it is as repeatedly stated, a "government-in-waiting" and the party faithful were learning their new parts in the campaign production.
Who Was in The Room
Scanning the crowd of over 400 people, there was no specific demographic overwhelming the room. It was an interesting mix. You can feel their excitement - this is their campaign to win and they know it. But you could also feel the tension - they've made it to the championship match and they prize is so close. To place second will be a disappointment, and for many of the NDP faithful, the day that hoped for has finally arrived.
That was the interesting undercurrent of the evening, listening to the conversations among attendees as the rally dispersed. Many talking of the old battles, the days when the NDP was third party, then the 90s when the NDP was reduced to fourth party with the rise of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
'I've been waiting 40 years for this moment', I overhead one Hamilton East NDPer say.
For younger NDPers, there is the excitement of being on a team with momentum. Some of them remember the early 2000s when the Young Liberals at McMaster were the "cool" party and the McMaster NDP struggled to attract enough members to keep club status.
This reflected the political landscape of Hamilton - the Liberals were a machine and they won handily.
The NDP's Chance
Mulcair gives a great political delivery, with strong gravitas and punctuates with his body language. He stayed mostly to his script on the teleprompter. His focus was on Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, ignoring the Justin Trudeau Liberals.
Two key themes were woven in the speech - the NDP is the party of change and the NDP wants to "build the Canada of our dreams".
It took Mulcair almost 30 minutes to get out of the room after his speech as the NDP faithful sought photos and selfies with their leader. I heard many 'I've been waiting for this day' as they spoke with Mulcair. The excitement for the faithful is real and they are motivated to give their all to the campaign.
Ambitions are high, with a small group chatting about "uniting the left" in this election, overtaking the Liberal Party as the option for Canada's left of centre voters.
Overall, there were no flaws in the rally and the NDP campaign looks to be ready for their main-stage appearance this fall.