NDP, Liberals hold respective fall planning sessions as roles reverse

OTTAWA – 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.

And this week’s caucus retreat represents the moment when they’ll “press the reset button,” as one insider puts it.

“We’ve really just been hanging onto the side of the boat and trying not to tip over for a year. And now it’s time for (Mulcair) to really grab the wheel … and set a course.”

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.

Over the longer term, Julian said, the party will move more toward “proposition” — showing Canadians “what the NDP will do more effectively and what we will do differently and how we will keep the commitments that we make.”

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.”

They’ll start on that immediately after the three-day caucus retreat, with the 101 New Democrat MPs fanning out across Newfoundland and Labrador to help solidify recent gains in support in the province, which polls suggest is at a record high.

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.

“So while the party is attending to the business of a leadership campaign and then the conclusion of that process next spring, the affairs in the House of Commons will be in very strong hands,” says Goodale.

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.

Into this polarized Conservative-NDP battle, Liberals see Tuesday’s provincial election in Quebec as something of a trump card.

Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic, says the Quebec outcome could alter the national conversation for years to come and provide new space for a Liberal voice.

Brison argues a sovereigntist government in Quebec City would highlight the “absolute abdication of responsibility for interprovincial relationships by Prime Minister Harper and his government.”

Liberals believe their party has a role to play bridging federal-provincial divides.

“It’s more than an opportunity for the Liberal party, it’s a responsibility for the Liberal party,” said Goodale.

“We’ve got to be particularly good at making that case.”

Rae, having opted not to run for the permanent leadership, will continue to give the Liberals some parliamentary heft. But his caucus will inevitably be distracted by the leadership contest, with as many as seven MPs potentially joining the contest, including Montreal MP and party rock star Justin Trudeau, House leader Marc Garneau, veteran Montreal MP Denis Coderre, Ottawa MP David McGuinty and New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.

A host of others from outside caucus are considering taking the plunge. Constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne has already announced her candidacy, as has Shane Geschiere, a Manitoba paramedic.

The caucus retreat may well be the first victim of leadership distraction. While it’s ostensibly intended to plot strategy for the resumption of Parliament on Sept. 17, media attention will almost certainly focus on Trudeau — who has taken the summer to reconsider his initial refusal to enter the leadership race — and other prospective candidates.

The only definitive news on the leadership front will be process: the party is expected to clarify the rules, including the entry fee and spending limit, the process for the leadership vote and the April date when the next Liberal leader will be chosen.

— With files from Bruce Cheadle

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