IN THE NEWS ~ New Democrats, Liberals hold respective fall planning sessions as roles reverse

By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Shoe, meet the other foot.

The coming week will be a study in role reversal as federal New Democrats and  Liberals hold simultaneous caucus retreats to plot strategy for the fall sitting  of Parliament.

After a tumultuous, roller-coaster year, the NDP's 101 MPs are viewing their  meeting in St. John's, N.L., as a chance to move forward with calm deliberation  and, finally, some stability.

They aim to cement their claim as the only credible alternative to the Harper  government and set an ambitious course for defeating the Conservatives in the  next election in 2015.

The tiny Liberal caucus, meanwhile, will be meeting at a resort in  Montebello, Que., grappling with how to maintain a parliamentary presence while  up to a fifth of its 35 MPs plunge into a lengthy, existential leadership  contest.

A year ago, it was the NDP, reeling from the untimely death of Jack Layton,  that was facing an uncertain future. Its most experienced MPs were preparing to  launch leadership campaigns, leaving untested novices to hold down the  parliamentary fort.

Indeed, the party has lurched from crisis to crisis since the May 2011  election: Scrambling to train a raft of inexperienced MPs who never expected to  be elected; coping with Layton's illness and eventual death last summer;  enduring a sometimes-bruising, seven-month leadership race; making the  transition to the new leadership of Tom Mulcair while simultaneously mounting an  aggressive campaign against the Harper government's massive, omnibus budget  bill.

This summer has marked the first time in 15 months that New Democrats have  had time to take a deep breath and indulge in some long-term planning.

And this week's caucus retreat represents the moment when they'll "press the  reset button," as one insider puts it.

"We've really just been hanging onto the side of the boat and trying not to  tip over for a year. And now it's time for (Mulcair) to really grab the wheel  ... and set a course."

In the short term, caucus chairman Peter Julian said New Democrats will focus  on demonstrating to Canadians they are the "real opposition" to the Harper  agenda, pushing back on issues such as raising the retirement age to 67, deep  cuts to the environmental assessment process and questions of transparency and  ethics in government.

Over the longer term, Julian said, the party will move more toward  "proposition" — showing Canadians "what the NDP will do more effectively and  what we will do differently and how we will keep the commitments that we  make."

As well, he said the long-term plan includes ensuring that MPs "maximize our  time so we're working very effectively and hard in Ottawa but also going right  across the country and engaging Canadians in the communities they live in."

They'll start on that immediately after the three-day caucus retreat, with  the 101 New Democrat MPs fanning out across Newfoundland and Labrador to help  solidify recent gains in support in the province, which polls suggest is at a  record high.

The NDP's newfound stability will undoubtedly make life more difficult for  the Liberals, who benefited from the official Opposition's turmoil.

"We're in a challenging position in the sense that a leadership process is  just about to begin," said Ralph Goodale, the Liberal deputy leader.

But he makes the case that Liberals are "in a better position to cope with it  than probably the NDP were a year ago, because we have a very strong interim  leader."

With parliamentary veteran Bob Rae leading the charge, the three dozen  Liberal MPs punched above their weight last fall and winter, often out-shining  the bigger NDP. Liberal support crept up in opinion polls to the mid-twenties,  briefly within spitting distance of sagging NDP fortunes.

"So while the party is attending to the business of a leadership campaign and  then the conclusion of that process next spring, the affairs in the House of  Commons will be in very strong hands," says Goodale.

However, NDP support has bounced back since Mulcair took the helm in March,  with polls over the summer suggesting the party is now tied with or even  slightly ahead of the ruling Tories. The Liberals have slipped to around 22 per  cent, only marginally ahead of the historic low 19 per cent of the popular vote  they eked out in the disastrous May 2011 election.

Into this polarized Conservative-NDP battle, Liberals see Tuesday's  provincial election in Quebec as something of a trump card.

Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic, says the Quebec outcome could alter  the national conversation for years to come and provide new space for a Liberal  voice.

Brison argues a sovereigntist government in Quebec City would highlight the  "absolute abdication of responsibility for interprovincial relationships by  Prime Minister Harper and his government."

Liberals believe their party has a role to play bridging federal-provincial  divides.

"It's more than an opportunity for the Liberal party, it's a responsibility  for the Liberal party," said Goodale.

"We've got to be particularly good at making that case."

Rae, having opted not to run for the permanent leadership, will continue to  give the Liberals some parliamentary heft. But his caucus will inevitably be  distracted by the leadership contest, with as many as seven MPs potentially  joining the contest, including Montreal MP and party rock star Justin Trudeau,  House leader Marc Garneau, veteran Montreal MP Denis Coderre, Ottawa MP David  McGuinty and New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.

A host of others from outside caucus are considering taking the plunge.  Constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne has already announced her candidacy, as has  Shane Geschiere, a Manitoba paramedic.

The caucus retreat may well be the first victim of leadership distraction.  While it's ostensibly intended to plot strategy for the resumption of Parliament  on Sept. 17, media attention will almost certainly focus on Trudeau — who has  taken the summer to reconsider his initial refusal to enter the leadership race — and other prospective candidates.

The only definitive news on the leadership front will be process: the party  is expected to clarify the rules, including the entry fee and spending limit,  the process for the leadership vote and the April date when the next Liberal  leader will be chosen.

— With files from Bruce Cheadle

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