Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP says retreat first step in toppling Harper

St. John's caucus meeting to focus on life after Layton as Parliament looms

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OTTAWA -- Canada's official Opposition is pushing the reset button after a tumultuous year that saw it lose a beloved leader to cancer and lurch through a parliamentary session with little experience to guide the way.

The 100 members of the federal NDP caucus meet this week in St. John's, NL, for a two-day caucus retreat. Leader Tom Mulcair says it is intended to start the drive to be ready for the next election within two years.

"By the fall of '14, we've got to be completely ready to take on the Conservatives in the next election with a much more generous and fair vision of the type of Canada that we all want to build together," Mulcair said in his opening address.

Although the fixed election date isn't supposed to be until the fall of 2015, Mulcair believes Harper will change the date to the spring of 2015 so it doesn't conflict with seven provincial elections also expected that fall.

This is the first real chance for the NDP to prepare normally for a parliamentary sitting since becoming official Opposition in May 2011. Jack Layton's death in August 2011, and the ensuing leadership race, coupled with the relative inexperience of the caucus left the party often in the shadows of the much smaller but more experienced Liberals.

But the NDP feel a lot more confident and prepared with the new parliamentary session set to resume Sept. 17.

"Let's face it, we've been flying by the seat of our pants," said Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin. "It's almost a sigh of relief."

Martin said the party isn't troubled by policy decisions and the caucus meeting and focus in the coming months will be on "galvanizing the structure and organization" of the party.

Martin said most people don't realize the scope of the structural changes Layton began instituting during his eight-year tenure as NDP leader. Everything from new relationships with riding associations to regional organizations to the way the party keeps fundraising lists has changed.

"We need to implement the structural changes Jack Layton initiated," said Martin.

One of the biggest challenges, Martin admitted, is finding ways to grow NDP support in suburbs, where most of the 30 new seats being added to the House of Commons are located.

"They are not traditionally NDP strengths but it is coming," he said. "Our support is growing and I'm confident we'll get our fair share. This is going to be the alchemy of the next three years."

Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton said the retreat is a chance for the party to regroup and plan its agenda for the fall, including a focus on issues such as environmental regulations and fighting a private members' bill dealing with abortion.

She took an indirect swipe at the Conservatives, saying it isn't about the leader telling everyone what their position will be on every issue.

"We don't need to have a caucus retreat to learn what we believe in," she said.

The NDP will also closely watch the fallout from Tuesday's Quebec election that saw the separatist Parti Québécois win a minority government.

With the separatists in power in Quebec, it's believed the NDP and Mulcair will have a large role to play when it comes to national unity.

With more than half its caucus representing seats in Quebec, the NDP has a unique, though new connection to Quebec voters.

"There is no federal party better equipped to handle a Parti Québécois," said Martin.

-- with files from The Canadian Press

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 A11

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