NDP finalizes leadership race rules

NDP MPs who run for party leader will have to give up their parliamentary critic roles, interim leader Nycole Turmel said Wednesday, but she left a controversial exception that will let the party's deputy leaders keep their titles.

Party will allow deputy leaders to hold on to their titles

MP Olivia Chow, left, hands a pair of eagle feathers to NDP interim Leader Nycole Turmel, at a pre-session caucus meeting Wednesday in Quebec City. Chow's late husband and former NDP Leader Jack Layton used to keep the feathers on his desk. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

NDP MPs who run for party leader will have to give up their parliamentary critic roles, interim leader Nycole Turmel said Wednesday, but she left an exception that will let the party’s deputy leaders keep their titles.

Deputy leaders Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davies, who sometimes sub during question period when the leader is absent, will get to keep their titles if they decide to run for NDP leadership.

At the same time, any MPs who shadow cabinet ministers and have a critic portfolio or other parliamentary function, including chairing parliamentary committees, will have to relinquish those roles until the leadership is decided March 24, 2012.

The House leader, a role Mulcair fills, caucus chair and deputy chair and whip must also step down temporarily.

The move didn't seem to bother the potential leadership candidates, however, with one musing that it would be unfair for critics to shoulder extra work compared to candidates without subject matter files.

Mulcair is one of the party's best-known MPs, particularly in his home province of Quebec. He said Tuesday that he won't formally announce his intention to run for leader until he has his campaign team in place.

Party president Brian Topp, who said Monday he will run for leader, has said he will step down from his role once he submits his nomination papers.

"Deputy leader, there's no definition of roles and responsibilities — it is up to the individual — that therefore that's OK to maintain," said Brad Lavigne, principal secretary to the leader of the Opposition.

"That was the decision of the leader, to delineate between those responsibilities that had roles and responsibilities clearly laid out, and those that did not."

Anne McGrath, the party's chief of staff, told MPs that she would not run for the leadership, after a media report that said people were asking her throw her hat into the ring.

Turmel outlined the rules for her MPs heading into this fall's leadership race during a news conference in Quebec City at the NDP's annual caucus retreat.

NDP MPs are meeting for two days this week to plot strategy before heading back to the House of Commons Sept. 19.

MPs have been trying to show a unified front, emphasizing the effort and declining to say who they're considering supporting for the leadership.

But at least two MPs — Nathan Cullen, who says he's considering running, and Françoise Boivin, who supports Topp — said they didn't realize the deputy leaders would get to hang onto their titles.

Cullen said he doesn't feel encumbered by anyone else's title, and insisted the other potential candidates didn't have a problem with it.

Plans for the fall

The party faces a number of new challenges. The meeting comes before their first full session as the Official Opposition, and their first time in the House of Commons since leader Jack Layton died of cancer. And they’ll be starting their first leadership race since 2003.  

But MPs heading into the meeting tried to keep the focus on their plans for the fall rather than on the race for the next leader. Many have said they're still recovering from Layton's death. Only Topp has so far declared his intention to run.

Turmel told caucus members they were Layton's greatest legacy.

"A team that is united. A team that knows what it believes. A team with the experience and the commitment Canada needs right now," Turmel said. "A team that can't wait to get back to Parliament and take on Stephen Harper."

Layton's widow, MP Olivia Chow, told her colleagues their support meant a tremendous amount to her and her family.

"And of course you know it means the world to Jack," she said, referring to him in the present tense, her voice catching slightly.

Chow presented Turmel with two eagle feathers, one of which Layton had kept after a canoe trip with Chow in British Columbia. Party officials said an eagle had circled overhead the pair, with one of its feathers falling onto the canoe. Haida elders told him it symbolized leadership, they said.

"Wishing you the wisdom and strength that these will give to you," Chow said.

The 102-member caucus met for a private dinner Tuesday night, and their Quebec colleagues met Tuesday afternoon. Between Wednesday and Thursday, they’ll establish the rules about MPs and staff and how they have to behave during the leadership race.  

MPs are also discussing what party officials are calling their most comprehensive strategy ever developed for a fall session of Parliament. The strategy includes setting the political agenda offensively, getting ahead of legislation, and showcasing their talent.

The other main focus for the party will be outreach: holding the new support it found for last spring's election and finding new members in Quebec. The party doesn’t have a provincial wing in Quebec, but saw a breakthrough there for the May 2 election, going from one MP in Quebec to 59. The party will also reach out to ethnic communities, women and young people.

Updates from the NDP caucus retreat in Quebec City are available on our mobile-friendly liveblog.