OTTAWA - New Democrats are kicking off the winter political season with an emphasis on making life more affordable for average Canadians.
The official Opposition is holding a two-day caucus strategy session, starting today, and caucus chair Peter Julian says the focus will be on issues like exorbitant automatic bank machine fees and credit card interest rates.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair will expand on that theme when he launches a cross-country tour next week.
The NDP is intent on reclaiming its title as the champion of consumers, a mantle the Conservatives tried to steal in last fall's throne speech, in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government promised a consumer-first agenda.
But Julian says Conservatives are just "paying lip service" to the matter while giving "free rein" to banks and companies that routinely gouge consumers.
By contrast, he says Mulcair will offer specific and detailed solutions.
Mulcair will be visiting southern and northern Ontario, Winnipeg and Edmonton next week, to be followed by other stops throughout the winter.
The affordability focus does not mean Mulcair intends to ease off his grilling of Harper on the Senate expenses scandal once Parliament resumes on Jan. 27 — using a relentless prosecutorial style that won him much praise during the spring and fall sittings.
"What we're going to continue to do is show Tom's strengths in the House of Commons but also have him and our national caucus across the country making sure we're in touch with Canadians, we're speaking to Canadians and we're talking about the issues Canadians are concerned about," Julian said.
And what Canadians are most concerned about these days is how to make their lives more affordable, he added.
"(Affordability) is something that is increasingly becoming a concern of Canadians," said Julian.
"Certainly, the job numbers haven't been good but generally speaking as well, even for folks who are working, for a lot of working families, their real incomes have declined ... So making life more affordable is going to be a real theme."
Among the issues the NDP intends to tackle are automated teller fees, access to low-interest-rate credit cards, and exorbitant interest rates on payday loans.
As well, it will take on what Julian calls "pay to pay" — the increasingly common practice wherein companies charge a fee for those who want to receive paper versions of their bills.
Affordability will also be linked to the NDP's push for expanding the Canada Pension Plan and rolling back the age of eligibility for old age security to 65 from 67. And it will tie in with criticism of Canada Post's surprise pre-Christmas decision to end door-to-door mail delivery in urban areas and hike postage rates.
With a federal vote set for the fall of 2015, Julian said the strategy session will also focus on election readiness. New Democrat MPs will hear from Jeremy Bird, national field director for U.S. President Barack Obama's successful re-election campaign.
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