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Charlie Angus, ther NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, holds a news conference in Ottawa on May 17, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Charlie Angus, ther NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, holds a news conference in Ottawa on May 17, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Official Opposition

'Ill-prepared' NDP strikes dissonant chord in pressing arts agenda Add to ...

When you're no longer the third party but the government-in-waiting and you hold a news conference about nothing, you will be criticized. And the NDP was on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened to talk about arts and culture - no announcements, no numbers - but it was really aimed at showing off the party's impressive new strength from the arts community. Unimpressed, reporters asked NDP MPs why they were even holding a news conference and accused them of being ill-prepared - a taste of what may be in store for the party in its new role as Official Opposition.

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The most difficult queries came from the French media, who will be watching the 59 NDP MPs from Quebec with great interest.

"Apart from introducing your caucus members," one reporter began, "why are you holding a press conference here this morning? Are you announcing something? Promising something? Are you worried about the majority you are facing? Do you think that you can have any kind of influence?"

Another chimed in bluntly: "You are ill-prepared."

Charlie Angus, the veteran New Democrat from Timmins-James Bay, a musician and the lead MP in the news conference, held his cool. He defended his party and its new status.

"We are prepared for Parliament and prepared to take up our role as Official Opposition," he said. Earlier, he had described how the NDP opposition in a majority government will be more effective than the Liberals were during preceding years of minority government.

"If Mr. Harper wants to work with us, we will work with him but we will not roll over every time Mr. Harper tells us to, which is what unfortunately happened with the Official Opposition in the last Parliament," Mr. Angus said. "We feel that we're much stronger and we're ready to take on Mr. Harper when we need to."

But that's not what he really wanted to talk about. Mr. Angus wanted to introduce three rookie NDP MPs whose backgrounds are in arts and culture: Andrew Cash, a Juno award-winning musician from Toronto-Davenport who has played in a punk band with Mr. Angus; Longueil-Pierre Boucher MP Pierre Nantel, the a former artistic director for Cirque du Soleil Musique; and Tyrone Benskin, the new MP for Jeanne-Le Ber and former ACTRA national vice-president.

Mr. Angus wanted to criticize Stephen Harper's Conservatives for being tone deaf to culture in contrast to the NDP, which is attuned to arts and culture simply by the fact that several of its caucus members now come directly from that field.

He joked that he had never seen so many Tories at galas after Mr. Harper's intemperate remarks in the 2008 election about such red-carpet events. Mr. Angus argued that quip cost the Tories a majority government last time around.

Short on specific numbers, the four MPs talked instead about the need for income averaging to help starving artists, whose average income is $13,000 a year - well below the poverty line. They talked about pension reform and increases to the CPP that would be a "practical way" to help artists have more security.

And they talked about how important the arts and culture are to Canada and its identity.

"We are not government yet," Mr. Angus said. "And when we are government you will see that platform be brought forward in one of our first press conferences but now we are the Official Opposition so we're not bringing out our election platform to you and saying we demand this to be implemented."

Rather, they have four years to work from the opposition bench and are looking to find ways to advance the arts and culture file in the face of a Conservative majority.

"We are going to push this government to be on priorities that matter for Canadians," Mr. Angus vowed, noting help is needed for seniors, health care and pension reform as well as the arts.

"What's our number one export? Is it oil? Is it gas? Or is it Justin Bieber, Arcade Fire or Cirque du Soleil? Our problem is that it is not a balanced industry because of many of our artists are having to leave," he said. "... We are an international force for culture."

And for now, an Official Opposition in need of a little work on messaging.

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