Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP aims for boost in Prairies

Must make inroads, leader Mulcair says

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THE road to 24 Sussex Drive for Tom Mulcair goes through the Prairies.

The Opposition leader and head of the NDP recognizes while his party made fantastic gains in Quebec in the 2011 election, if he's looking to pick up additional seats, he's got to focus on Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

That's why he's criss-crossing the three provinces as part of his "Prairie Initiative" to meet with people, hear their ideas and incorporate their thoughts as much as possible into his party's policies.

"We're working hard on the Prairies because between Ontario and B.C., the Conservatives dominate. We have one seat in Alberta and we have two in Manitoba," he said during an interview at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café Saturday afternoon.

What's particularly glaring is the NDP's performance in Saskatchewan -- its birthplace. In the last four general elections, it has won a grand total of zero seats.

"We've got to start doing things differently otherwise we'll get the same result," he said.

The NDP hopes to make significant inroads with young voters by telling them about the "massive ecological, economic and social debt" that the Harper government will be leaving on their shoulders.

In addition to getting them to buy into the NDP's message, he also has to convince the younger generation to bother turning up at the ballot box. Roughly two-thirds of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 25 didn't bother to vote in 2011, he said.

"That's a huge challenge for us," he said.

The Conservatives realize what's at stake in the Prairies and in Saskatchewan in particular, Mulcair said, as shown by Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisting last week that his party did nothing wrong in commissioning "robocalls" for Saskatchewan residents recently about proposed changes to federal electoral boundaries in the province.

The calls said the proposed boundary changes were contrary to Saskatchewan values and asked residents to press 1 on their keypads if they agreed.

(A Tory spokesperson issued a subsequent statement that the calls should have been identified as coming from the Conservative party.)

"They know if (the boundaries) are put in place in a way that's fair and reflective of society, then the NDP will win seats. We've been getting 36 to 37 per cent of the vote in Saskatchewan but zero seats," he said.

Mulcair described current boundaries as looking like a pizza. The inner city, where the NDP is strong, is being diluted by the rural areas, he said.

"We don't have proportional representation in Canada but it's not sensible that a party that gets more than a third of the votes gets no seats," he said

Mulcair knows full well he wouldn't be in his current position if it weren't for the cancer death of his predecessor, Jack Layton. The man who lead the "Orange Crush" movement in 2011 continues to inspire him.

"He had a way of dealing with people on a really human level. He always kept his cool or when he didn't, it was more with humour than anything else, and it was fun to work with him," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 17, 2013 A4

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