Role reversal in Ottawa
Sep 3, 2012 / 1:00 pm
Shoe, meet the other foot.
The coming week will be a study in role reversal as federal New Democrats and Liberals hold simultaneous caucus retreats to plot strategy for the fall sitting of Parliament.
After a tumultuous, roller-coaster year, the NDP's 101 MPs are viewing their meeting in St. John's, N.L., as a chance to move forward with calm deliberation and, finally, some stability.
They aim to cement their claim as the only credible alternative to the Harper government and set an ambitious course for defeating the Conservatives in the next election in 2015.
The tiny Liberal caucus, meanwhile, will be meeting at a resort in Montebello, Que., grappling with how to maintain a parliamentary presence while up to a fifth of its 35 MPs plunge into a lengthy, existential leadership contest.
A year ago, it was the NDP, reeling from the untimely death of Jack Layton, that was facing an uncertain future.
Its most experienced MPs were preparing to launch leadership campaigns, leaving untested novices to hold down the parliamentary fort.
Indeed, the party has lurched from crisis to crisis since the May 2011 election: Scrambling to train a raft of inexperienced MPs who never expected to be elected; coping with Layton's illness and eventual death last summer; enduring a sometimes-bruising, seven-month leadership race; making the transition to the new leadership of Tom Mulcair while simultaneously mounting an aggressive campaign against the Harper government's massive, omnibus budget bill.
This summer has marked the first time in 15 months that New Democrats have had time to take a deep breath and indulge in some long-term planning.
In the short term, caucus chairman Peter Julian said New Democrats will focus on demonstrating to Canadians they are the "real opposition" to the Harper agenda, pushing back on issues such as raising the retirement age to 67, deep cuts to the environmental assessment process and questions of transparency and ethics in government.
As well, he said the long-term plan includes ensuring that MPs "maximize our time so we're working very effectively and hard in Ottawa but also going right across the country and engaging Canadians in the communities they live in."
The NDP's newfound stability will undoubtedly make life more difficult for the Liberals, who benefited from the official Opposition's turmoil.
"We're in a challenging position in the sense that a leadership process is just about to begin," said Ralph Goodale, the Liberal deputy leader.
But he makes the case that Liberals are "in a better position to cope with it than probably the NDP were a year ago, because we have a very strong interim leader."
With parliamentary veteran Bob Rae leading the charge, the three dozen Liberal MPs punched above their weight last fall and winter, often out-shining the bigger NDP.
Liberal support crept up in opinion polls to the mid-twenties, briefly within spitting distance of sagging NDP fortunes.
However, NDP support has bounced back since Mulcair took the helm in March, with polls over the summer suggesting the party is now tied with or even slightly ahead of the ruling Tories.
The Liberals have slipped to around 22 per cent, only marginally ahead of the historic low 19 per cent of the popular vote they eked out in the disastrous May 2011 election.
--With files from Bruce Cheadle
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