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NDP unlikely to shed tears if their federal minimum wage motion is defeated

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa September 15, 2014.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

An NDP motion calling for a $15 an hour federal minimum wage appears poised for defeat, a fact that is likely to suit the Official Opposition just fine as it positions itself for next year's campaign.

With just over a year to go before the 2015 election, campaigning was front and centre as MPs returned to Parliament Hill on Monday. The NDP is looking for ways to energize its supporters and carve out a distinct policy platform and the minimum wage plank is viewed as a key part of that effort.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper – who started the day with a campaign-style speech in Ottawa – later rejected NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's proposal during Question Period.

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"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have two different rates for two different groups of workers," he said in French. "We will continue to work with the provinces in this area."

The NDP motion calls for the the government to reinstate the practice of setting a separate federal minimum wage and increase the rate incrementally to $15 per hour over five years. The Conservatives hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons, meaning support from the governing party is required for a motion to succeed.

The measure would apply only to the nearly one million workers in federal jurisdictions, such as banks and the various transportation sectors. The NDP estimates that tens of thousands of those workers would benefit from a higher minimum wage. However the most recent available data – from 2008 – showed that only 416 of those federal workers earned the minimum wage, leading some to say the NDP is exaggerating the measure's potential impact.

Liberal labour critic Rodger Cuzner said the measure is unlikely to benefit many Canadians, but his party is leaning toward voting with the NDP.

"It doesn't have a great reach, but we're going to look at it. It will be tough to vote against," he said. "Is this one of the most pressing issues? I'm not convinced."

The NDP counters that a higher federal minimum wage could press the provinces to raise their rates, which range between $10 and $11. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business expressed concern Monday about that possibility, noting that some employers are cutting back employee hours in response to Ontario's recent minimum wage increase.

Mr. Mulcair appears to be drawing lessons from this year's Ontario election campaign, where provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was widely criticized from the left for not supporting a campaign for a $14 minimum wage in Ontario.

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"I think this is very clever politics by Mulcair to get out ahead of this issue," said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour. "The one thing that people were critical of the provincial party was that the platform was not progressive enough, so we lost a lot of the traditional NDP supporters who didn't see their issues represented in the platform. Whereas now, Mulcair is getting out a year in advance of the election saying where he clearly stands on big-ticket items like the minimum wage."

After Question Period, Mr. Mulcair did not hide that the day was all about election politics.

"It's part of the change that's been brought by the fixed-date election," he said, in reference to the federal vote scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. "It's quite clear that everything that the Prime Minister does or says from now until the election has everything to do with that election, and it's quite clear that we're going to be responding in kind … I'm very comfortable with a fixed date election and we're gearing up for that. This is just the beginning."

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