Under the fixed-election law introduced in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's purported effort to ensure a fixed four-year interval between elections, the next vote is supposed to take place on Oct. 19, 2015.
There's just one catch: the law has never done what it was supposed to do, and there's no reason to think that's going to change any time soon, Mulcair said Wednesday during his party's annual summer caucus retreat in St. John's, N.L.
Harper called an election in the fall of 2008, just two and a half years after the previous vote. His minority government was defeated less than three years later in the spring of 2011.
Indeed, Harper has already hinted the law will be amended to ensure the next federal campaign doesn't overlap with as many as seven different provincial elections scheduled for about the same time.
"We're counting on the past to guarantee the future," Mulcair said. "We're thinking that the likely timeline is the spring of 2015, which makes it even more important for us to be completely ready for the fall of '14."
Mulcair opened the retreat by advising his caucus that "a two-year countdown has started for us."
"By the fall of '14, we've got to be completely ready to take on the Conservatives in the next election with a much more generous and fair vision of type of Canada that we all want to build together."
The retreat, which wraps up Thursday, is aimed at plotting strategy for the Sept. 17 resumption of Parliament and, over the longer term, ensuring the NDP is poised to defeat Harper's Conservatives in the next election.
It's the first time New Democrats have had the luxury of indulging in long-term planning since vaulting into official Opposition status in the May 2011 election.
Since then, the party has been lurching from one crisis to another: scrambling to train inexperienced MPs, coping with the death last summer of leader Jack Layton, organizing a bruising, seven-month leadership race and making the transition to Mulcair's leadership while mounting a simultaneous parliamentary war against the Tories' massive omnibus budget bill.
Party insiders have equated the caucus retreat to hitting the "reset button."
Outside caucus, Mulcair said setting a deadline for full election readiness is intended to "get people's minds concentrated on the fact that things do move forward quickly and we have to be ready and there's a lot of work to be done.
"Two years seems like a long time, but it's actually quite fast in politics."
There is work to be done on both the "mechanical" side and on the policy side, he added.
The first task — making sure the novice MPs elected in 2011 put down roots in their ridings — is already well under way, Mulcair said. But beyond that, there is still much to do.
"We've got to teach people about the fine art of fundraising, how to get money, how to get ready for the next campaign," he said, adding that the party is in the process of bringing new technologies to bear to identify potential donors.
On policy, he said the party needs to give substance to its stance on sustainable development and develop economic policies that give Canadians "confidence in our ability to run this complex economy in this very large country."
In a bid to burnish the party's economic credentials, NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said she'll be meeting with chambers of commerce in cities across the country in the next few weeks, listening to their ideas on how to create jobs and economic growth.
She said business groups are "pleasantly surprised" to find the NDP is interested in their concerns, although she said the experience of fiscally prudent provincial NDP governments has helped alleviate fears that a socialist federal government would indulge in reckless spending.
"Clearly economic credibility is important to Canadians. Just as families have to deal with the issue of affordability, they want to make sure their government is credible when it comes to economic issues," Nash said.
During Wednesday's retreat, the party's 101 MPs attended workshops, some on issues the NDP believes need more attention, others on the mechanics of how to be a more effective MP and how to prepare for an election.
In the near term, Mulcair said his caucus will focus this fall on three key areas that arose out of last spring's budget: employment insurance reforms that could negatively impact seasonal workers, raising the retirement age to 67 and the "gutting" of environmental assessment legislation.
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