Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel promised on Wednesday to make Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first majority budget the "fight of her life," as the Official Opposition vowed to protect the interests of Canadian families.
The interim leader, now with two months left in her role, made the remark when she delivered a rallying speech to her caucus on Parliament Hill in which she took direct aim at Harper and the Conservatives over the economy and health care.
Harper has his priorities wrong and must make job creation the top priority, Turmel told the NDP's 101 MPs. She accused the prime minister of being more concerned about pensions for MPs than the retirement savings of Canadians and called for an arms-length committee to be set up to review the pension system for MPs.
"Maybe it will give him time to finally focus on ensuring every Canadian can retire in security," she said.
There have been renewed calls recently from groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to shut down the lucrative pensions that MPs are eligible to receive after six years of service.
The NDP said it wants the review panel to be made up of independent experts, not MPs, that would determine whether the system is fair and make recommendations if necessary.
Joe Comartin, the NDP's House leader, later said the review should be a nonpartisan process.
"It's appropriate that we be doing a review at this point, it's over 10 years since the last one was done. The economy has changed and perhaps the pensions will change," he said.
The NDP caucus met Tuesday and Wednesday to plot strategy for the coming months in the House of Commons. Job creation, health care and First Nations poverty are all top priorities according to the Official Opposition.
Fighting the cuts
Turmel and other NDP MPs say they are ready to take on Harper and his first majority government budget and will fight whatever cuts to programs and services it contains.
With that majority in the House of Commons, the Conservatives don't need to rely on the support of the Official Opposition to pass the budget, which raises questions about how the NDP intends to fight it.
Finance critic Peter Julian told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the NDP will use public opinion to try to sway the government away from its "wrong-headed" policies, which include corporate tax cuts.
"Public opinion does have an impact and so our job is to make sure that those voices of those families from coast to coast to coast are heard in the House of Commons, and we're doing a very effective job of doing that," he said.
"(The Conservatives) have to pay heed to public opinion and we're going to make sure they know full well what Canadian families are thinking," he said.
The NDP says Conservatives' economic policy isn't working and needs to change direction before the budget. The party is calling for an "investment budget" that will lead to job creation, instead of one that makes cuts, said Julian.
All government departments were asked to find savings of between five and 10 per cent as part of an operating review over the last few months. The results of the review will be in the next budget and there are concerns that thousands of jobs are on the line.
Vows to work with provinces on health care
The NDP is also planning on making health care a big issue in the months ahead because of the funding plan it says the federal government imposed on the provinces.
Turmel said during her speech that Harper is working against the provinces on health care instead of with them and she warned that frontline health services, and therefore families, will suffer thanks to the Conservatives' approach to health care.
The government recently announced a new funding arrangement with the provinces that will take effect after the current agreement expires in 2014. There was no negotiation, as the provinces were expecting, and premiers are calling for more dialogue with the Conservatives about future funding.
The NDP will be a partner with the provinces in Ottawa, Turmel told the caucus, and won't give up on improving services.
"My friends, we are New Democrats, we won't let our health care wither and die," she said.
Turmel, a former union leader who was elected to the House of Commons last May, said she's been fighting against Conservative ideas for more than 20 years.
"I have fought to protect families from reckless Conservative cuts. I have fought alongside all of you to hold the Conservatives to account for their failure on Attawapiskat, on job creation, on helping families get ahead," said Turmel. "And now, my friends, I will make this reckless Conservative budget the fight of my life."
The NDP caucus is full of energy and determination, according to Julian, who is also the caucus chair. The caucus is down a member from before the winter break, however, due to the defection of Lise St-Denis to the Liberals, but caucus members say they are united and ready to get back to work on Monday in the House of Commons.
The Liberals named St-Denis the new critic for early learning and child care on Wednesday.
There was a fresh face, however, at the meeting Wednesday — Craig Scott, the NDP's candidate in Toronto-Danforth. Scott, a law professor, hopes to keep Jack Layton's riding in NDP hands. Harper has until Feb. 26 to set a date for a by-election to fill the vacancy left by Layton's death in August.
Layton had handpicked Turmel to lead the party on an interim basis before he died. Turmel said Wednesday that her caucus is committed to keeping Layton's legacy alive, "Because each and every one of us carries Jack's legacy in our hearts."