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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is greeted by members of his caucus has he arrives to take part in the NDP caucus strategy meeting in Ottawa on Jan. 16, 2014. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is greeted by members of his caucus has he arrives to take part in the NDP caucus strategy meeting in Ottawa on Jan. 16, 2014. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NDP taking tour to ask voters about making Canada more affordable Add to ...

The federal New Democrats want to hear from Canadians who are feeling the economic pinch.

Thomas Mulcair, the Leader of the party that is the Official Opposition but has been mired in third place in public opinion polls for many months, is embarking on a tour of Ontario and Western Canada to talk to Canadians about “affordability.” Specifically, he wants to talk about banking fees and gas prices.

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“Life is increasingly expensive,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters at a news conference during a break Thursday from a two-day strategy session. “We’re seeing a lot of working families who simply aren’t getting by. And that could be anything from a $3 or $4 [automated teller machine] fee to collusion at the gas pumps. So there are a lot of things that are costing families more and more.”

New Democrats will be travelling the country asking Canadians about the types of policies they would like a federal government to introduce to make life more affordable – a consultation that is part of the party’s pre-campaign strategy heading into 2015, a scheduled federal election year.

Putting a lid on gas prices and reducing bank charges are not new ideas for the NDP. Peter Julian, the party’s caucus chair, was calling for gas-price monitoring back in 2007. And former leader Jack Layton campaigned in both of the previous elections on promises to cap ATM fees as well as interest rates for credit cards and quick loan shops.

Meanwhile, economists say the cost of living in Canada is not rising out of control. There is a problem with housing prices in Canada’s biggest cities where homes are no longer affordable to first-time buyers, said Benjamin Tal, an economist with the CIBC. But the Bank of Canada is more worried about deflation than inflation, something that has afflicted Japan for the past 15 years and can lead to a recession, said Mr. Tal, who stressed he was not responding to the strategy of the NDP or any political party.

The real issue, Mr. Tal said, is income. Canadian incomes “are not rising quickly enough,” he said, “due to the fact that some of the jobs that we are creating are relatively low-quality jobs.” That is especially true for young people and immigrants who cannot find employment that matches their education level, he said.

When asked how he planned to raise the income levels of Canadians, Mr. Mulcair said he is going to listen to people.

“We’re going to go across the country, we’re going to listen to their priorities,” he said. “You don’t have to understand fine theory of competitive regulation to understand that there’s collusion among gas companies when [prices] all go up by the same amount, when they all start that price gouging in the middle of the worst phases of the winter or just as people are leaving on summer holidays.”

Perhaps consumers need an ombudsman, Mr. Mulcair said. “If you meet with the people that I meet with, on the ground level,” he said, “people for whom the slightest increase in their hydro bill makes it suddenly very difficult to end the month, you understand how important it is to look at these affordability issues and that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing.”

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