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Interim New Democratic Party leader Nycole Turmel delivers a speech during a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 25, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Interim New Democratic Party leader Nycole Turmel delivers a speech during a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 25, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

NDP goes through winter of discontent Add to ...

Nycole Turmel begins this crucial political winter hobbled by poor polls, facing criticism her New Democrats are irrelevant, and with a team of front-benchers who were not meant to be there.

This is what happens when the B-team is forced to become the A-team.

Pressed into action last summer, Ms. Turmel, the interim leader and herself a rookie MP, had to fill key vacancies in her shadow cabinet with other rookies and some less-seasoned MPs after Jack Layton’s sudden death triggered a leadership contest and a stampede of senior MPs to the race.

At that time, there were concerns the bleeding of front-bench strength could become an issue for the Official Opposition. Recent polls have now borne out these concerns.

But as the House returns on Monday after its six-week Christmas break, Ms. Turmel is not planning changes to her shadow cabinet, says her chief of staff, Anne McGrath. Those may come after a new leader is elected on March 24 in Toronto.

Until then, there is the Harper government to hold to account, which after five years in minority is emboldened by its big majority. It is promising not only to cut deeply and ruthlessly into government spending – all of which will be revealed in the spring budget – but also to transform Canada’s retirement pension system.

Against this backdrop, what is the NDP to do?

There’s not much it can do, according to Youri Rivest, the CROP pollster who released a devastating online survey this week. Concentrating only on Quebec, it showed the NDP with 29 per cent support, which is almost half of what it had in the May election.

“There’s a big downward spiral for them right now,” Mr. Rivest says. “They are pretty absent in Quebec. They are not really relevant right now, and I think people don’t know what they stand for.”

Not a good place to be, especially given that the party derives its official opposition status on the strength of its 58 MPs from Quebec – more than half of its caucus.

More than that, the Liberals in Quebec are profiting from the NDP’s tumble, Mr. Rivest says. His poll shows the Liberals gained nine points – to 19 per cent support from 10 per cent – since the election.

And even with a new leader expected in March, Mr. Rivest does not see much of a change in the NDP’s fortunes.

“ ... he [she]has to fill big shoes, Jack Layton’s shoes,” Mr. Rivest asserts. “Mr. Layton had a lot of sympathy, and expectations are huge.”

This week, however, NDP MPs met in Ottawa for their winter caucus retreat, strategizing on how to get through the next several weeks.

“We do have two crucial months,” acknowledges Ms. McGrath, noting the budget will come down during that time. “... That’s very big, and a lot of people are very worried about what is going to be in the budget.”

She adds, however, that not all is doom and gloom and that criticisms of a weak front bench are unfounded.

“We’ve developed a really strong team now here on the Hill in order to take the Conservatives on,” Ms. McGrath says, arguing the critics have gelled in their positions and are comfortable with their files.

The NDP will go after the Tories on the economy and lack of a jobs strategy – not much of a change of direction from the fall session. Health care is a big issue for them, too, with the federal government unilaterally deciding that it’s going to work against the provinces, Ms. McGrath says.

She was referring to the Harper government’s take-it-or-leave-it health accord presented to the provinces before Christmas.

For the daily, televised Question Period – the most visible part of Parliament – the NDP is now working on a strategy to make Harper cabinet ministers more accountable. Ministers’ reliance on talking points – scripts provided by the Prime Minister’s Office – is turning the 45-minute session into a joke.

“We’re talking a bit about how we can either move them off [talking points]” Ms. McGrath says, “or make it abundantly clear to Canada that the government has no interest in being accountable ...”

She would not elaborate on exactly how they will do this.

Robin Sears has some ideas. The former NDP national director, now a principal at Navigator, a strategic communications company, says the NDP must resist the temptation to “fire off in all directions, respond to whatever is going on that day ...”

The budget is the key to this sitting, and he believes it will overshadow every other issue. The challenge, he says, is to prepare well and pick some very narrow slices of the political agenda.

“And try and give their best shot that way,” he says.

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