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Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 2, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 2, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Thinning front bench hobbles NDP Add to ...

Nycole Turmel, already struggling as interim NDP chief, has been watching her front-bench strength bleed away to the leadership race.

This could become an issue for the Official Opposition as it tries to stay relevant by holding the Harper government to account while at the same time concentrating on the contest to select a permanent successor to the late Jack Layton.

A Nanos Research poll this week showed Ms. Turmel is now running behind Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae in terms of how she is viewed by Canadians on trust, competence and vision for the country.

The departure of senior MPs from the front bench has left the NDP somewhat hobbled. Ms. Turmel laid down prior to the leadership contest, declaring that anyone seeking the top job would have to give up their critic positions.

Fortunately for Ms. Turmel the bleeding may have finally stopped with recent announcements from Peggy Nash and Robert Chisholm. The Toronto and Nova Scotia MPs, who served as finance and international trade critics respectively, bring the number of declared candidates for leader to eight – six of them MPs. (Manitoba MP Niki Ashton may also jump in.)

Political strategist Robin Sears, a former chief of staff to Bob Rae when he served as Ontario NDP leader, says this does create a “hole” for Ms. Turmel in Question Period and in committees. But he doesn’t view it as the most difficult issue for the Interim Leader since critics can be replaced and get up to speed on their portfolios relatively quickly.

“I think the consequence of this generates two other potential problems, which to my mind are more severe,” Mr. Sears, now a senior partner at Navigator, told The Globe. “One is the leadership will suck the oxygen out of attention for the NDP caucus because as the campaign heats up there will be fisticuffs on the road ... that will compete with the caucus’s efforts to get attention.”

The other consequence is more serious – the possibility of a candidate taking a position counter to what the caucus is espousing.

“Then the ability to divide and have some sport at that expense goes way up,” Mr. Sears said, noting that if he were in a position to manage caucus he would be telling the leadership candidates not to do anything to damage the party.

Anne McGrath, chief of staff to Ms. Turmel, says she hasn’t had to have any such chats with the candidates nor does she think she will have to. They are experienced MPs, she said, who understand the party wants a leadership contest marked by “vigorous” and “open” debate.

Whether the Conservatives attack them for apparent or imagined divisions is not a concern, she said. Ms. McGrath argued that orange wave in the May election that saw the NDP become the Official Opposition was powered by a desire to see a more positive approach to politics – that Canadians rejected the old divide and conquer negativity employed by the Tories.

Still, Ms. McGrath acknowledged that losing so much front-bench strength is a “challenge for us.” It also creates a domino effect as the NDP tries to plug holes – but that, she added, show’s the party’s “depth.”

For example, Ms. Nash has been replaced as finance critic by British Columbia’s Peter Julian, a veteran in the House who many expected would also run. And Windsor veteran Brian Masse took over as international trade critic from Mr. Chisholm.

In addition, Ms. McGrath said, the strength of the candidates in the leadership race can only be good for the party.

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