The NDP leader took the latest steps in the pre-election dance at the start of a two-day caucus retreat Thursday, where he delivered a campaign-style speech aimed at rallying his troops.
After the 2011 federal breakthrough, New Democrats were confident they were poised to replace Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government in the next election. But they were rudely awakened when the Liberals, left moribund in 2011, revived under Trudeau's leadership.
Since Trudeau took the helm 21 months ago, the Liberals have been leading in most opinion polls, followed closely by the Conservatives. The NDP has fallen to a distant third.
Mulcair, who has consistently out-performed Trudeau in the House of Commons, at first ignored the Liberal leader. Then he started questioning Trudeau's competence. Last fall he began unveiling key platform planks in a bid to showcase his policy depth, in contrast to Trudeau's refusal to release a platform before the election campaign.
The New Democrat sharpened his attack Thursday as he trashed the government's economic record and touted his party as the champion of struggling middle-class families. That's the same mantle Trudeau has donned, but Mulcair maintained that only the NDP has the experience and policy depth to replace the Conservatives.
He emphasized his own 35 years in public service, including serving as a Quebec cabinet minister and his background as the second of 10 kids born to a middle-class family that "worked hard, played by the rules and lived within our means."
He contrasted that with Trudeau's upbringing, implying that the Liberal leader was born into privilege as the eldest son of a former prime minister and believes "he can just inherit power without proposing a thing."
Notoriously unreliable opinion polls have not been the only sign of trouble for the NDP. The party's vote share has dropped, sometimes dramatically, in a series of byelections, while Liberal support has soared.
Moreover, a number of veteran New Democrat MPs, including Libby Davies and Yvon Godin, have announced they won't seek re-election.
In the biggest blow, Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault, who had been caucus chairman, stunned his colleagues last month when he quit to run for the Ontario Liberals in a provincial byelection.
As they gathered for the meeting, New Democrat MPs were upbeat, giving no sign they're losing confidence in Mulcair or their dream of winning power.
Polls are irrelevant, Toronto MP Craig Scott maintained, arguing that only once an election is actually called will voters begin to seriously consider the options.
When they do, he predicted they'll conclude Mulcair is "two to three to four levels above Justin Trudeau in terms of capabilities, experience, intelligence, everything else."
In his speech, Mulcair reiterated promises to roll back the retirement age to 65 from 67, introduce a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and a $5-billion-a-year plan to create one million child care spaces that parents could access for $15 a day.
To pay for those promises, Mulcair has said he'd repeal corporate tax cuts. He added Thursday that he'd also scrap the government's recently introduced income-splitting plan, which allows couples with young kids to split their income for tax savings — at a cost of about $2.4 billion a year to the federal treasury.
Income-splitting is unfair and would benefit only the wealthiest 15 per cent of families, Mulcair said.
At the same time, he said he would not cancel recently announced boosts to the universal child care benefit.
The NDP leader also announced Thursday that he's appointed a new chief of staff — Alain Gaul, a Montreal lawyer who served as Mulcair's chief of staff when he was Quebec environment minister. Gaul replaces Raoul Gebert, who directed Mulcair's leadership campaign and who will continue as an adviser to the leader.
Mulcair also brought in two veterans to shore up the NDP campaign team.
Brad Lavigne, one of the masterminds behind the so-called orange wave that vaulted the NDP into official Opposition status for the first time, will serve as senior campaign adviser.
Michael Balagus, who has led successful provincial NDP campaigns in Manitoba, will handle the federal party's campaign in Ontario. He has been chief of staff to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath since last fall.
Mulcair's moves Thursday drew scoffs from Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, who accused him of playing "catch-up" to Trudeau, who was the first to focus on the travails of middle-class families and who announced months ago that he'd scrap the income-splitting plan.
By her calculation, Mulcair has made $52 billion worth of promises, which would not be paid for by hiking corporate taxes or scrapping income splitting.
"I think the onus is really on the NDP to explain how they would fund their promises," Freeland said. "If they're proposing to increase taxes, they should say so. If they're proposing to run a big deficit, they should say so."
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