The arts in Canada are an economic driver that need more support and shouldn't be ignored by the Conservative government, the NDP said Tuesday as it introduced its new "arts caucus."

A trio of newly elected New Democrats joined re-elected MP Charlie Angus at a news conference in Ottawa, where they pledged to hold Prime Minister Stephen Harper to account on the arts and heritage file, now that the NDP forms the Official Opposition.

Angus said the NDP will push Prime Minister Stephen Harper to increase arts funding in the coming session of Parliament and to keep his promise not to cut existing funding.

"We will be watching him very closely and holding him to account because we expect him to keep those promises," Angus said. "We are expecting the government to live up to their promise not to find savings through attacking the arts sector in this country."

Billions in cuts

The Conservatives have said they want to find $4 billion a year in savings in order to eliminate the deficit by 2014-15.

Angus was joined at the news conference by Andrew Cash, a musician and writer, Tyrone Benskin, an actor and former vice-president of ACTRA, and Pierre Nantel, a former artistic director with Cirque du Soleil. They said their newly formed arts caucus brings unmatched experience in the arts to the House of Commons and they will defend the interests of artists across the country.

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"The economic heft of the sector is something that our caucus is going to be highlighting and talking about, and I think it's important for Canadians to realize that and get excited about it," said Cash, who was elected in Toronto.

"Mr. Harper is very concerned about the economy coming out of the recession. He can't ignore the arts and culture sector."

The New Democrats warned that without stronger support from the government, the multi-billion dollar sector is at risk, and they want to see more funding for it and the people it employs.

The NDP called on the federal government to implement income averaging, an income tax policy they say would benefit artists. It would allow artists who have a good year financially one year, followed by some bad years, to average their earnings over a prescribed period so they are not always in a higher tax bracket.

No cost estimate for averaging

The group also called for increased funding for the Canada Council for the Arts. The party couldn't say how much the income averaging measure would cost, and Angus could not specify by how much the NDP wants to increase funding for the Canada Council.

The New Democrats also said they want the Conservatives to commit to stable funding for certain organizations receiving government support, so they can plan ahead.

In its election platform, the NDP pledged to help the arts and cultural industries thrive and to promote Canadian content on television and in theatres. To do that, the NDP promised to ensure Canadian networks remain Canadian-owned through foreign ownership regulations, to "re-focus the mandate" of the CRTC so it protects cultural industries better and to invest in the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm Canada with sustained funding.

Angus said the NDP isn't going to ask the Conservatives to implement these proposals, but the party wants to work with the government to improve the country's arts policies.

"We are not government — yet," he said. "When we are government, you will see that platform be brought forward in one of our first press conferences."

In addition to more money for the Canada Council, the NDP wants to bring back funds axed by the Conservatives that promoted Canadian arts and culture internationally.

The NDP's branding of itself as a defender of the arts could play well for the party in Quebec, where a groundswell of support propelled the New Democrats to their second-place finish in the May 2 election. The NDP went from one to 59 seats in Quebec, where the arts are a particularly important industry.

Proposed federal budget coming back

The Conservatives plan to reintroduce the budget that was originally tabled in March but wasn't passed before the spring election was triggered. That budget included $100 million a year for the Canada Media Fund and $15 million for the Canada Periodical Fund, which promote Canadian content on television and in publications.

With a majority in Parliament, the Conservatives don't need the NDP's support for the budget, or its bills, including the controversial bill to reform copyright law. Angus said the NDP will nevertheless work hard to ensure that bill, when it is reintroduced, is fair to artists and other Canadians.

"We're going to examine the bill, we're going to do due diligence with the bill and we're going to ensure that it's a bill that reflects the needs of artists and reflects the needs of average Canadians," he said.