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Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel sits in her office on Parliament Hill. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel sits in her office on Parliament Hill. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

NDP's Turmel vows to put up a fight in looming budget battle Add to ...

With just weeks left in her mandate, Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel rallied her caucus Wednesday, vowing to battle for Canadian families and make the Harper Conservative’s upcoming budget the “fight of my life.”

“Stephen Harper has his priorities wrong,” an outspoken Ms. Turmel told NDP MPs gathered on Parliament Hill at their winter caucus retreat. They are plotting strategy in advance of the return of the House Monday from its Christmas break.

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Ms. Turmel is the party’s interim leader and will step down in March when a new leader is chosen. But she is likely still to be at the helm when the budget – which is expected to feature deep cuts to government spending – is delivered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in late February or early March.

In taking aim at the Conservatives’ priorities, Ms. Turmel criticized Mr. Harper for his seeming preoccupation with MPs’ lucrative pension plans rather than ensuring secure pensions for all Canadians.

“He thinks the most pressing issue right now is MPs’ pension, not the retirement security of millions of Canadians,” she charged. “Maybe it’s because I’m a long, long way from having an MP pension. But I’m here to fight for better pensions for all Canadians.”

The so-called gold-plated MP pension scheme – which is far more generous than private sector pensions and in which Canadian taxpayers contribute $23 for every $1 contributed by an MP – has been a recurring theme in political Ottawa of late. That’s because 39 MPs – elected in 2006 – recently became eligible for the plan. They can all collect at age 55.

Ms. Turmel was elected last May and needs six years of service before she can qualify. And she suggested the Prime Minister set up a “arms length” committee to look at the issue.

“It’s quick, it’s simple. Maybe it will give him time to finally focus on ensuring every Canadian can retire in security,” she said. “That is what Canadian leadership is all about.”

As part of the government’s search for cuts in government spending – the Harper Conservatives have vowed to find $4-billion in annual savings – Treasury Board President Tony Clement has said that reforms to the MP pension plan are on the table. In fact, Mr. Clement has suggested there are no sacred cows and everything is being considered for the cuts.

Ms. Turmel’s argument – and that of her party – is that this simply a smokescreen to avoid dealing with issues such as helping Canadian families.

Indeed, the fight for the family was front and centre in her speech Wednesday. Not only did she touch on retirement security but also on health care.

The Prime Minister recently dropped a 10-year health-care accord on the laps of premiers – saying take-it-or-leave-it.

Ms. Turmel called out Mr. Harper for again failing to show leadership on this file – and offered the premiers to join with the NDP as partners on fighting for good health care for all Canadians.

“We are New Democrats ... we will not let our health care wither and die,” she said.

Speaking against the backdrop of a huge Canadian flag and her MPs, Ms. Turmel noted that she had just been touring Quebec for the past two weeks.

The province is, of course, crucial to the NDP’s continued survival as the official opposition party, having elected 59 of a possible 75 MPs in the May election.

Recent polls show the NDP holding on to their strength in Quebec, but Ms. Turmel’s leadership has not exactly set the party or Canadians on fire. A new CROP poll out Wednesday shows the party is at 29 per cent support, which is down considerably from the 53 per cent they were at in last spring's federal election

A new leader will be chosen March 24 in Toronto.

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