NDP touts 'Lethbridge declaration' to woo western voters

The federal New Democrats are hoping to duplicate their Quebec election success on the Prairies, but political watchers suggest the party has its work cut out.

New grassroots push aims to build party across Prairies in quest for federal election victory

Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair meets reporters following talks with provincial NDP leaders in Ottawa on Tuesday. 14:41

The federal New Democrats are hoping to duplicate their Quebec election success on the Prairies, but political watchers suggest the party has its work cut out.

The NDP is launching an initiative it says will develop "a bold vision for Westerners, grounded in the party's strong Prairie roots."

A party press release last week said the new "Lethbridge Declaration" is modeled on the success of the Sherbrooke Declaration, the 2005 Quebec initiative that is widely credited with laying the groundwork for the party's sweep of the province in 2011.

An official with Mulcair's office said this Prairie initiative was part of the discussions as Mulcair met Tuesday with his provincial counterparts, including Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, as well as NDP leaders Brian Mason from Alberta and John Nilson from Saskatchewan.

Other topics on the NDP leaders' agenda included the economy and jobs, as well as energy and natural resources.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Mulcair said NDP governments have been competent managers of the economy in five provinces and one territory, and that the purpose of the meeting was "sharing best practices, looking at the best way forward, sharing ideas for the future of Canada based on cooperation between the provinces and the federal government."

Mulcair referenced the fact that in one NDP-run province, Manitoba, the tax rate for small businesses is zero, and small businesses create jobs. The NDP can learn from that experience, he implied, by targeting sectors, and "not give the kind of across-the-board tax cuts to large corporations that the Conservatives did that didn't create jobs."

Asked about his feelings on several recent polls that show that if Justin Trudeau were Liberal leader, the NDP would drop to third place, Mulcair said, " I have no intention of making the same mistake... and I think it was more than imprudence, it was improper in terms of our institutional life, when Mr. Harper stuck his nose into my leadership race, and although I did take it as a compliment, he was a little bit worried about me as leader of the NDP."

Mulcair added that he would deal with whoever the Liberals choose as leader in a "substantive" way.

Grassroots organizing modelled on Quebec

So what does this new western push mean?

"That's up to the members," said party president Rebecca Blaikie.

"The vision that we have right now is to bring people together. And so the kind of grassroots organizing that we are launching on the Prairies is the same kind of grassroots organizing that we did in Quebec...in many, many years that led up to our eventual victory there."

Blaikie was a key figure in the effort in Quebec, where the NDP vaulted to Opposition status in the last federal election by capturing 58 seats.

The NDP has just three members of Parliament on the Prairies — two in Manitoba and one in Alberta. It doesn't have any seats in Saskatchewan, where the party was born.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair poses with provincial and territorial NDP leaders from across Canada before their meetings on Parliament Hill Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

During NDP leadership race in February 2012, Tom Mulcair said the only way the party can build on its success is to hold onto those seats in Quebec and convince Westerners that New Democrats are capable of good public administration.

Blaikie said the initiative is about making sure people are heard.

"That those voices can then be formed into resolutions and that those resolutions can be taken to the convention in Montreal in April to make sure that there really is a strong Prairie presence and Prairie voice at that convention," she said.

"That will lead us towards a vision of how to grow our party on the Prairies in time for the next election."

Betting on Liberal collapse?

Jim Farney, an associate political science professor at the University of Regina, says the goal make sense, especially coming from Blaikie, a Manitoban, and Mulcair.

"It wouldn't be surprising for the two of them to say, 'Here's a part of the country we haven't been strong in federally for a generation really, I wonder if there's ground to be made up there,' especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan," said Farney.

Farney said the NDP may also be betting on the continued collapse of the Liberals in urban Alberta ridings.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair, seen here touring the Calgary Stampede last summer, met with his provincial NDP counterparts in Ottawa Tuesday. On the agenda: finding new ways to boost the party's grassroots support across the Prairies. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

But the professor admitted he isn't clear on what the "bold vision" will look like.

"I mean obviously we can figure out the buzz words, it'll be environmentally friendly and sustainable and progressive and all that stuff," he said.

"But it's hard to say. When you listen to Mulcair talk, it's a lot about reinvigorating manufacturing. Well, we don't have much of a manufacturing sector on the Prairies. It's about maintaining community — well, we're a place people move to, so what does that mean for us?"

"Until they actually start rolling out what that means, it's hard to say."

'Dutch disease' haunts Mulcair

Farney said the issue of resource development is going to be a problem for the NDP.

Mulcair's comments about the energy sector have not been popular in Alberta or Saskatchewan.

The Opposition leader said last year that Canada is afflicted with the so-called "Dutch disease" phenomenon. He has repeatedly said economic strength in Alberta, fuelled mainly by the oilsands, is jacking up the Canadian dollar and hurting manufacturers elsewhere in the country.

"I think some people felt alienated by it and some people felt validated by it," said Blaikie.

"Not everybody who lives in Alberta or Saskatchewan feels completely comfortable with the way that industry and corporations are taking running or are taking advantage of the resources in their provinces and they want to make sure that wealth is shared better."

with files from CBC News