OTTAWA - It was billed as a leaders' meeting about policy, but it was really a meeting about NDP perceptions.
Power wasn't the subtext, it was the point of the exercise.
Tom Mulcair, the federal New Democrat leader of the official Opposition, invited his provincial NDP counterparts to Parliament Hill on Tuesday for what was advertised as "Leaders Summit 2013" — complete with an official-looking billboard over a muted splash of partisan orange.
New Democrats, it seems, are learning from the brand-conscious Harper Conservatives.
The three-hour, closed-door session included segments on federalism, jobs and the economy, and resource development and energy. But the critical messaging came before the media was asked to leave.
"The NDP's very proud of its track record of prudent public administration in the five provinces and in the territories where it has been in power, and that's what we're going to be doing today," Mulcair, alone at a microphone, told a large throng of national media drawn by the January news doldrums.
Two NDP premiers — Darrell Dexter of Nova Scotia and Greg Selinger of Manitoba — joined almost a dozen provincial and territorial leaders and a handful of NDP MPs from across the country for the talks.
Dexter and Selinger were to lead two of the internal discussions.
Asked if he was "borrowing a little of their success provincially" with this meeting, Mulcair complimented the questioner and suggested she come work for the federal party.
"That's precisely the point," said Mulcair. "We have a very good track record."
Mulcair then recited — in both official languages — former Saskatchewan NDP premier Tommy Douglas's 17 consecutive balanced budgets and the 10 in a row more recently racked up by Manitoba's New Democrats.
He even made note of Manitoba's tax rate for small business: "Zero per cent. That's because small businesses are the ones that create jobs."
Since becoming leader last March, Mulcair has been attempting to bolster the federal NDP's economic credentials as the party positions itself for a run at government.
His political opponents clearly see it as a vulnerability.
"Thomas Mulcair is meeting today with NDP counterparts for a brain-storming session on how to get Canadians to accept higher taxes and a higher cost of living," the Conservative party said in a release Tuesday that went on to paint all NDP governments as untrustworthy.
As a counterweight, Mulcair has been tacking to the centre.
Last week, the NDP assailed the Harper government over its "failure to take action to improve our trade competitiveness," which the party said had resulted in Canada's merchandise trade deficit quadrupling.
Going against type, New Democrat MPs also supported a free trade agreement with Jordan and are pushing to speed up trade talks with Japan, along with prioritizing negotiations with Brazil, India and South Africa.
On the social file, Mulcair has kept his distance from protesting First Nations chief Theresa Spence and has publicly called for her to end her liquids-only hunger protest, prompting a rare bit of praise from a Conservative cabinet minister.
"We are all worried about her health and safety and we would like to see her end her hunger strike," Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told The Canadian Press. "The comments from Thomas Mulcair were most welcome. I don't know what more can be said."
Dexter, the Nova Scotia premier who took office in 2009 after eight years on the opposition benches, said New Democrats always have to overcome entrenched perceptions or "mythology."
"Coming to power is a process," Dexter said — and part of that process is convincing the electorate you're ready to govern and not simply to be the party of conscience.
"You have to say to people that the reason we want you to vote for us is because we want to be in power," he said. "I believe that is the manner in which Tom is going about directing his caucus."
There's nothing covert or subtle about it, either.
"Do leaders engage in visibly trying to move parties? Of course they do, and really you'd be foolish not to," Dexter said.
"You have to address the issues that are there, whether they are matters of perception or reality."