NDP drawing fall plans 'in pencil' due to leadership race

NDP MPs are in Hamilton Saturday for meetings to plan for the fall session in the House of Commons but the party's leadership race is hanging over the caucus. MPs are anxious to learn who will lead them in the months ahead.

The NDP is meeting Saturday for caucus meetings as the party's leadership race nears end

NDP MPs Nathan Cullen and Alexandre Boulerice speak to reporters at their party's caucus meetings ahead of Parliament's fall session in Hamilton on Saturday, Sept.16, 2017. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The NDP caucus is meeting in Hamilton on Saturday to discuss priorities and strategies for Parliament's fall session, but the party's leadership race, now in its final stage, is at the forefront of MP's minds.

On Monday, they can start voting for one of four candidates to replace Tom Mulcair: Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, Quebec MP Guy Caron and newcomer to the federal scene, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh.

The contenders and their fellow caucus members said they are excited the race is finally drawing to a close after months of campaigning.

Caron, who launched his campaign in February, described the contest as a "marathon," and Angus admitted he is "so far beyond tired."

"I sense when I talk to my colleagues they are looking forward to having a decision so that we can get a focus, because what we do in Parliament matters," he told reporters at the Hamilton Convention Centre. "I think that a lot of people feel like we've been treading water since 2015 and we've got to get down to it."

The four contenders will make their final pitches to members during a Leadership Showcase on Sunday, then voting begins Monday by mail and online. The results will be announced Oct.1 and if no one gets a majority of the votes, further rounds of voting will be held until there is a winner. About 124,600 members are eligible to vote.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Making plans "in pencil"

The MPs are meeting in various breakout groups Saturday afternoon, then Sunday they will have a full caucus meeting before the candidates make their speeches.

Nathan Cullen, a B.C. MP, told reporters the caucus is gathering with the understanding that plans they make this weekend for the fall session could all change depending on who is elected. That person will quickly want to put their mark on the party's strategy and could change roles within the caucus.

"We're drawing this plan in pencil, not felt marker," said Cullen. "But we do need a plan going ahead."

While the MPs tried to focus on how to attack Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government when they return to Ottawa on Monday, the candidates themselves were busy doing interviews and preparing for their speeches.

NDP MPs greet each other and pose for a group photo at their party's caucus meeting in Hamilton, Ont., on Saturday, Sept.16, 2017. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Caron said his focus on Saturday was entirely on preparing for his big moment on stage on Sunday.

"For many members this will be when they are making their decision, so I am focusing entirely on this," he said.

He is also trying to build more support from the caucus for his leadership bid. Caron said he has the most caucus endorsements, eight of them, and that talks with more MPs are ongoing. Some MPs are remaining neutral in the race, others are undecided.

Cullen, who ran in the last leadership race against Mulcair, said he's struggling with the decision. 

Some MPs still undecided

"It's a great problem to have, because I've got four quality choices and would be happy with any of them," he told reporters. He said he wants a leader who can maintain and build support in Quebec, bring in new members to the party and excite the NDP's base. That will be the test he applies when he makes his decision, he said.

Alexandre Boulerice hasn't endorsed anyone and said he's also having trouble making up his mind. He had each of the four candidates over for coffee to his home this summer.

"It was hard to pick one and not others, they all have strengths and things I like in all of them," he said.

Ashton, who is running for leader for the second time, said this weekend's gathering is about planning for the fall session but that talks on Saturday with her colleagues will also be about getting their votes. It is a ranked ballot, she noted, "so there are other choices to be made."

"It's an important weekend," she remarked. 

Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh speaks to reporters in Hamilton, Ont., at the NDP caucus meetings. He said he is feeling confident about his chances of winning the party's leadership. (CBC)

Singh is the only candidate who is not a member of the federal caucus and Ashton weighed in with her thoughts on him not having a seat in the House of Commons.

"I do believe being part of caucus and having a seat in the House of Commons does matter. Obviously we need a leader in the House right away to hit the ground running on key issues," said Ashton. 

Singh has said he doesn't plan on running for a seat right away. He would wait until the 2019 election and, in the meantime, travel across the country to hear the concerns of Canadians and propose solutions.

Ashton said she wants to hear more from him about those plans. So do NDP members, she added.

Angus agreed and said he loves Singh's energy and what he's brought to the race, but argued that he should have a seat in the House if he's asking Canadians to elect him prime minister in 2019. 

"If he's going to be a national leader and on the national stage, we need him in the national house," said Angus.

Singh, who was at the convention centre Saturday but not part of the caucus meetings, said he is open to ideas and suggestions.

"But I'm comfortable with the fact that right now I don't have a seat," he added.

Singh said he is continuing his outreach this weekend to MPs and party members to build his support in the final stretch. He has led the way in fundraising and says he has signed up the most new members of all the candidates.

Cullen said he hasn't heard Singh's lack of a seat raised as a concern and noted there is precedence for party leaders not having seats when they are elected. That was the case with the NDP's own former leader Jack Layton, who died in 2011.

"I personally don't see it as a significant problem, but every member of the NDP will view things differently and there are pros and cons to every candidate, they have various strengths," he said.

Learning from past mistakes

As they look forward to who will be leading them soon, New Democrats are also looking back at what went wrong in the 2015 election, when they failed to win and they gave up their official opposition status to the Conservatives. Those kinds of questions have come up as members decide what kind of leader they need for the 2019 election and as the candidates make their pitches.

"We blew it," Angus said bluntly about the last election.

"We became too careful, too safe, and too convinced that somehow it was our time," said Angus. He said the party made mistakes, he learned from them and he will work hard as leader, if he wins, to earn the trust and votes of Canadians.

Angus said the party drifted too far away from its grassroots during the last election and he believes he's the right person to make that connection again.

Some members of the caucus, including Mulcair, enjoyed a football game Friday night between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders.

But the outgoing leader won't be participating in most of Saturday's and Sunday's events. He's attending the funeral of a close friend. He will be stepping down in a few weeks, once the party has its new leader, and he's not commenting on the race to replace him.

"I own the world's best 10-foot pole and I take it out anytime somebody asks me a question about the leadership," Mulcair said Friday.

"They are all great people, it would be an honour to serve with any one of them," he said of the candidates.