EDMONTON - New Democrats are gathering in Stephen Harper's backyard, convinced that the prime minister has worn out his welcome with Canadians, even in his home province of Alberta.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and his 96 MPs are arriving in the Alberta capital to plot strategy for what's expected to be a year of non-stop campaigning before the election scheduled for October of 2015.
And, with Harper's Conservative government approaching the 10-year mark — typically the best-before date for governments in Canada — they sense Canadians are ready for a change.
The NDP has been languishing in third in public opinion polls since Justin Trudeau took the helm of the Liberals but, starting this fall, New Democrats are hoping to reassert themselves as the real alternative to the Harper government by showcasing key platform planks a full year ahead of next scheduled election.
As New Democrats were gathering Tuesday for their summer caucus retreat, the Conservatives were releasing their latest ad which touts Harper as a steady hand on the tiller as the country navigates through choppy global economic waters.
But NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen predicts that campaign theme will backfire and the Conservatives won't have any other message to fall back on.
"Sometimes the question is are you better off than before these guys came in and the answer for the vast majority of Canadians is no," Cullen said in an interview.
"The cost of living has gone up dramatically, the cost of wages has not kept pace and government policies haven't helped, they've only hurt."
Cullen said Harper's government has alienated huge swaths of the population with its bullying, hyper-partisan style and ethical challenges so, if the economic message falls flat, the Tories will be out of ammunition.
"All they've got left is their economic record and that is a bad record. So I think they're increasingly desperate."
Unless the governing party renews itself, usually by choosing a new leader, Cullen noted that Canadians historically tend to get fed up after about a decade in power.
"Harper's leadership does not allow for a lot of renewal. That's why they go back to the same well: crime, something about the economy, and bashing their opponents. That's the holy trinity for the Conservatives, they don't have much else," he said.
"That fatigues on everybody."
Even in the Conservative fortress of Alberta, Cullen said voters are waking up to the fact that Harper's vow to make Canada an energy super power has been "an unmitigated failure."
Edmonton MP Linda Duncan, the NDP's sole representative in Alberta, said the Conservatives seem "tired" and out of gas.
"I think people are just (feeling) time for a change," she said.
As for Harper's vaunted economic management, Duncan scoffed: "I don't think they can fool people on that anymore."
Even in her home province, she said people see that "this great economic strategy hasn't been able to get the oil out of Alberta."
Throughout this fall, Mulcair intends to start spelling out details of key NDP policies on child care, infrastructure investment, health-care funding and reinstatement of a federal minimum wage, among other things. While that could give rival parties a chance to criticize NDP policies or steal their best ideas, Duncan said it's worth the risk.
"It will be a contrast (with the Liberals) because, thus far, we certainly haven't had much content from the third party," she said.
"But that's not why we're doing it. We're doing it because we think it's important for people to know what we stand for and what we would set as priorities when we become government."
Peter Julian, the NDP's House leader, said Canadians aren't just looking for a change of face in the prime minister's office; they're looking for a change in the government's agenda.
The caucus retreat begins in earnest Wednesday and continues Thursday.
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