NDP, Liberal caucus meetings a tale of two parties

Two very different story lines will emerge this week as federal New Democrats and Liberal MPs gather for their annual summer caucus meetings ahead of Parliament's return on Sept. 17.
Federal New Democrats and Liberals will hold their annual summer caucus meetings this week in anticipation of Parliament's return on Sept.17. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Two very different story lines will emerge this week as federal New Democrats and Liberal MPs gather for their annual summer caucus meetings ahead of Parliament's return on Sept.17.

When the NDP holds its caucus meeting in St. John's on Wednesday, it will be an opportunity for party leadership and members to hit the reset button.

"I think it's fair to say at this time last year we were in a profound mourning period," Peter Julian, the NDP's caucus chair, said in an interview with CBC News.

The party's leader, Jack Layton, had died only months after he led the NDP to Official Opposition status, and Nycole Turmel had taken over as interim leader.

The party then embarked on a lengthy leadership campaign that meant several MPs left their critic duties as they fought for the job, then Tom Mulcair was finally elected leader in March.

He was immediately faced with stick-handling one of the most controversial federal budgets in years as he settled into his new role.

One NDP insider described this fall as a "new beginning" for the party after a tumultuous year.

Julian said the scars are starting to heal and while New Democrats will always be thinking of Layton, they are fully behind their new leader, and believe he will carry on Layton's work.

"Now we have a dynamic leader, Tom Mulcair, who has the confidence of caucus and we're putting into place the strategies that we're going to need to do between now and 2015," Julian said, referring to the next election.

At this week's meeting, the caucus will be plotting strategy for the fall session, said Julian, and talking about how to push back against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's agenda.

He said he heard from Canadians over the summer who aren't happy with measures in the budget, such as the changes to environmental reviews and changes to Old Age Security, and the NDP will be talking about how to articulate those concerns.

The NDP will also spend part of its caucus meeting talking about how to engage with Canadians. Julian said meeting Canadians will be a priority for the party this fall because members want to establish the NDP as the party in Parliament that listens to Canadians.

He said NDP MPs are very good at representing their constituents' interests but they need to broaden their appeal and also work hard in ridings they don't represent – yet, according to Julian.

At least a dozen NDP MPs will fan out across Newfoundland and Labrador at the end of next week to kick off the engagement strategy.

Mulcair will give brief remarks to open the caucus meeting on Wednesday and deliver a keynote speech Thursday morning.

NDP MP and foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar won't be there to hear it though. He's attending the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Denise Savoie will also be absent. She quit as the MP for Victoria citing health reasons, with her resignation effective Aug. 31.

Liberal leadership race

While the NDP looks to re-set, the Liberals will gather in Montebello, Que. to focus on the next stage of the party's renewal, following a heavy collapse in the last federal election.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae will give a speech to the national party caucus on Wednesday, coinciding with the immediate aftermath of a Quebec election.

Should a sovereignist government return to power in Quebec, national unity will figure prominently in Rae's speech.

Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, has said she wants a referendum on sovereignty "as soon as possible" and that a minority win would not put the brakes on her pro-sovereignty agenda.

After the 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec, the federal Liberals under Jean Chretien passed the Clarity Act, which stipulates that a referendum on independence would have to have a "clearly" framed question and that the result would have to show a "clear majority," not just a majority of "50 per cent plus one" if the province were to separate.

Rae is also expected to speak about the economy, health care, energy and democracy — issues the Liberals believe Harper has been unable to unite Canadians on.

And as with every summer caucus meeting, the party leadership will also want to find out what MPs have heard from their constituents during the summer months, "a far more useful and reliable yard stick than any poll," said Liberal Deputy Leader Ralph Goodale in an interview with CBC News.

Mike Crawley, the Liberal Party president, will update the caucus on the new supporter membership category, and the rules surrounding the Liberal leadership race.

While Goodale would not speculate on whether any Liberal will launch their candidacy for the leadership this week, the deputy leader pointed out that some Liberals may be waiting to find out what the rules are before making an announcement.

Longtime Liberal Deborah Coyne, mother of Pierre Trudeau's only daughter, is the only Liberal who threw her hat into the race this summer.

Coyne said she believes she has a vision and a program that will resonate with Canadians.

Shane Geschiere, a Manitoba resident, had declared his intention to run for the leadership earlier in the year.

In August, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said he was ready to enter the race if he could find a "dream team" to work with.

Of course, all eyes will be on Quebec Liberal MP Justin Trudeau who has never denied having leadership ambitions but said any decision would be made in consultation with his family.

Other Liberals who are said to be mulling over the decision to take the plunge include Ottawa MP David McGuinty, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, and former MPs Gerard Kennedy, Mark Holland and Martha Hall Findlay, as well as one-time candidates David Bertschi and Taleeb Noormohamed and Toronto lawyer George Takach.

Rae surprised Liberals when he opted out of the race in June saying the best way he could serve the Liberals was "by not running for the permanent leadership."

"While a number of Liberal members will undoubtedly be preoccupied with the leadership race, we will come out with a solid game plan," said Goodale.

Conservatives to focus on economy

The Conservatives will hold their caucus meeting in two weeks.

In case there was any doubt, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said "the government's primary focus is and will remain the economy and jobs," during a recent press conference.

Flaherty said while the Canadian economy is in relatively "good shape," he is not ruling out another round of stimulus spending should the economic crisis in Europe or the U.S. worsen.

"What has been done before, can be done again," said Flaherty.

"If we ran into a serious world economic crisis arising out of the European situation, or something else that seems like the major downside risk now – then of course we'd be responsive if we had to be, to protect the Canadian economy and protect Canadian jobs as we have done in the past."

The finance minister said the government will continue to monitor global economic developments and present the next fiscal and economic update in the fall.