The sparkle was on for Thomas Mulcair on Sunday at the annual convention of the Canadian Association of Journalists at the Royal York Hotel.
Invited as a keynote speaker, the new Leader of the Opposition sipped water, not $16 orange juice, and fielded softballs gently lobbed by a crowd of journos more frustrated by the information-stifling policies of the Harper Conservatives than ideologically left-leaning.
With the NDP and Conservatives neck and neck in the polls, and Mulcair closing in on Harper in personal popularity, the Outremont MP charmed the 50-plus journos, some of whom were a tad bleary-eyed from a late-night awards gala.
Invoking his dual Anglophone-Francophone heritage, Mulcair tossed in occasional phrases in French, spoke in a relaxed, low-key tone, and strove for sympathetic common ground with those taking notes.
The Harper years have been tough on journalists, who have experienced unprecedented difficulty landing interviews with government scientists about climate change and other hot-button issues, and whose access-to-information requests have been routinely delayed and denied.
"We have similar barriers that we're dealing with," Mulcair said, acknowledging that the CAJ just hours earlier handed its annual Code of Silence Award to the Harper government.
"Sometimes we have to pay thousands of dollars in fees for simple requests," Mulcair said.
"We've heard Mr. Harper's environment minister say that scientists can speak to the science and that the government sets the policy. But, if the government's policy is that climate change doesn't exist, how can scientists possibly speak openly about its existence?"
Mulcair said he found it "disturbing" that journalists were held at arm's length and even arrested while trying to do their jobs covering the G20 Summit in Toronto and recent student protests in Quebec City.
The roles of journalists and the official opposition are in fact much the same, Mulcair pointed out.
"We're watching over the government, holding it to account, raising the alarm as the government fails to live up to its duty to serve the public interest, and working to ensure that the public knows," Mulcair said.
The hour-long talk included a hefty Q&A, something journalists are unaccustomed to from Harper, who has restricted contact with journalists to a bare minimum.
Mulcair covered a predictable range of topics, explaining that he faced the budget in his first week as opposition leader even while working with more than 100 MPs to set up a shadow Cabinet and pick committee leaders.
Mulcair invoked the spirit of Tommy Douglas, asserting that "we decided 50 years ago that no Canadian family should ever have to choose between having their sick child seen by a doctor and being able to put groceries on the table."
However, Mulcair took strongest aim at the Conservative record on the environment and the economy, intertwining the two.
"As a former (Quebec) environment minister, I was galled by Mr. Harper's failure to apply the most basic principles of sustainable development - user pay, polluter pay, internalization of environmental costs over the lifecycle of a product."
Mulcair linked tax policies, lost manufacturing jobs and rising student debt to a lack of political will to enforce existing legislation such as the Navigable Waters Act, the Fisheries Act and the Migratory Birds Act, and an environmental "approval" process that's effectively replaced a process of review and evaluation.
"We're allowing companies to use the air, soil and water as an unlimited free dumping ground, and we're leaving that as another brick in the backpack of future generations," Mulcair said, couching issues neatly in economic terms a right winger could appreciate.
"We're going be standing some of their arguments on their head, not only in terms of balancing of the economy but in terms of balancing our responsibilities and assuming them in this generation."
Mulcair's audience gave him a largely easy time.
"Alison Redford emphasized her progressive difference from the Wild Rose Party (in Alberta) yet totally supported oil sands development," one scribe pointed out. "How do you stake your position?"
"I never talk against the development of the oil sands," Mulcair replied, explaining that he's previously been misquoted on the issue. "What I say is you have to apply the basic rules about sustainable development...internalization of costs over the lifecycle of a product. The real cost has to be included."
Asked his view about civil service cuts, Mulcair linked servants to services and tied cutbacks to tax reductions to Canada's wealthiest corporations, some of which rewarded their executives with large bonuses, while companies that genuinely needed help to keep or create jobs did without.
"We had a minister (Gerry Ritz, Agriculture) make jokes about death by a thousand cold cuts (in 2008) and he's still there, and now they're cutting $50 million from the Canada Food Inspection Agency - it's in the budget."
Mulcair fielded questions about low voter turnouts and the notion of a two-party system by pointing out two-thirds of 18 to 25 year olds didn't vote in the last election and the NDP plans to work hard to reach young people.
"My number-one goal in the next election is to rally all progressives in Canada behind the NDP banner so we can defeat this government," he said.
"My job is to try to make sure that the first reflex of Canadians is to think of the New Democratic Party as being a party that can actually stand up and do something reliable. Not only project a soft feeling of where things can go but actually be reliable in terms of carrying through on it."