OTTAWA -- As the Liberals gather for the first of four days of caucus meetings Sunday, the elephant in the room will likely be NDP leader Jack Layton's tragic death and the impact it could have on the struggling third-place Grits.
Many Liberal MPs and failed candidates believe they lost natural and potential supporters to Layton's charm. His ability to relate, his energy and optimism, and his talent for speaking directly to people about pocketbook issues cost the Liberals dearly.
Without Layton in the picture, some Liberals believe the public's attention will switch to the NDP's policies, and many voters won't see themselves reflected in its positions or tactics.
Alexandra Mendes, a former Liberal MP who was defeated last May and is now running to become the party's president, told The Huffington Post Canada she's convinced at least 95 per cent of the people who "voted for Jack" had no clue what the party really stood for and what it championed in its platform.
"It is a bit too soon to evaluate how (Layton's absence) will have an impact on how citizens perceive the NDP, but one thing is certain during the Canada Post filibuster marathon, a lot of the comments I was hearing ... were 'This is totally futile, (the NDP) know they can't win because the government has a majority, so why are they doing this?,'" she said.
Mendes, who lost her Montreal-area south-shore seat to NDP candidate Hoang Mai, believes the next four years provide the Liberals with an opportunity to show that campaigning with a wonderful slogan for change, as the NDP did, means nothing if a party is powerless to deliver that change.
"That is going to play with (the public's) disenchantment with the party," she said. "For (Liberals), yes, we need to use it very well and very judiciously and really regain credibility with the Canadian population that we so sadly lacked in the last election."
Marlene Jennings, another defeated Quebec Liberal, also said that the NDP's large Quebec caucus will prove to be a challenge for whoever replaces Layton as leader.
“All of the political pundits and political experts said that Mr. Layton, as the chief, was going to have difficulty, herding his 59 new MPs, the overwhelming majority of which were from Quebec, many of them sovereigntist, if not straight-out independentists, and that challenge remains. It might have been easier possibly if Mr. Layton was still there and holding the reigns of power and authority, but he still would have had a real challenge in front of him. So I don’t think, the challenges are different.”
Deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale said Layton was a respected, larger-than-life figure who clearly had a huge impact on Canadians, but what his tragic absence means for the future of the political landscape is an imponderable unknown right now.
"I just think that is not a question that is answerable at this point or even it is just not the right time to even attempt an answer," he told The Huffington Post Canada. "Will things be different? Undoubtedly they will be, in exactly what way? I think it is impossible to tell. And probably any speculation on that point is irrelevant when most Canadians are focused on mourning his loss."
MP Carolyn Bennett echoed Goodale's statement, "The NDP have numbers but they have very complex problems in terms of what is going on in Quebec and what’s going across the country in terms of this next time, we, I think, can’t be strategizing or any of that right now, our job is to be as strong as we can be and be able to build the relationship with our party members, with Canadians and earn back their respect of Canadians on a one to one basis with Canadians regardless of the other players.”
Goodale said Liberal MPs and defeated candidates meeting this week would have their hands full dealing with their own homework, sharing lessons learned from the disastrous election result on May 2 that sunk the party to historic lows and discussing new messages the party's parliamentary wing plans to hammer out when the House of Commons returns Sept. 19.
FOCUS ON THE ECONOMY
According to Goodale, the party's principal focus will be the economy.
"We need to have a very clear economic message for Canadians that connects with the reality of their daily lives," he said.
Not only did the NDP manage to speak to people about issues they cared about, such as rising credit card fees, but during the last election, Liberals didn't focus on the economy despite viewing it as a traditional party strength.
"A compelling, strong message on economy is one of the things that we have heard and we have learned," Goodale said. "The economy is likely to be the overriding issue for the foreseeable future with the continuing great difficulty in the United States, with the turmoil and debt crisis in many countries in Europe, with some economists ... holding out the notion that a double dip to the recession is a real possibility."
"With so many Canadians feeling vulnerable, it will be very important for us to be active and clear and understandable in terms of what we say for the path ahead for the economy."
The Conservative government, Goodale added, is charting down the wrong course with an unbalanced approach focused on cuts across the board.
"If the government's prescription is going to be a one-note monotone about 'austerity, austerity, austerity and nothing but austerity,' their plan for getting Canada through these global difficulties will be woefully inadequate and a lot of Canadians will be left behind," he said.
Liberals, he said, will be reminding the public that in the mid-1990s, they tackled huge deficits by taking a balanced approached focused on jobs and growth as well as cuts to social spending.
The Liberal's summer caucus kicks off with meetings of the women's caucus and Senate caucus, as well as presentations by community and stakeholder groups who want to get their issues before MPs before Parliament returns next month.