OTTAWA - Tom Mulcair intends to start this fall nailing down some key planks in the NDP's election platform — a full year before the next scheduled federal vote.
The NDP leader says he'll be unveiling "some very concrete" proposals on child care, infrastructure investment, health care funding and re-instituting a federal minimum wage, among other issues.
Ordinarily, political parties keep their platforms under tight wraps until a campaign begins, to avoid giving rival parties a target or an opportunity to steal their best ideas.
But New Democrats are willing to take that risk as they fight to reassert themselves as the real alternative to Stephen Harper's ruling Conservatives, a role usurped by the third-place Liberals since Justin Trudeau took the helm 18 months ago.
They're gambling that the benefits of early disclosure — demonstrating how an NDP government would be different than the Harper regime and contrasting their substance with Trudeau's refusal to be nailed down on important policy questions — will outweigh the disadvantages.
"Canadians want to know where we stand and they're going to have a very clear idea," Mulcair told The Canadian Press as he prepared for an NDP caucus retreat in Edmonton next week to plot strategy for the fall sitting of Parliament.
"And they want more from us than, frankly, talking points, platitudes or partisan attacks."
Early disclosure of the platform is more respectful of voters, Mulcair argued.
"One of the things that often frustrates me as a voter is when you find out right in the middle of a campaign that they've got this, that and the other idea. You don't really have time to think about it, to measure it or to look at how it could help improve people's lives."
The former Quebec cabinet minister said the province's Liberals revealed their platform months before the 2003 Quebec election and it paid off.
"People appreciated it and it's something that I retained from my past experience is that, you know what, respect people's ability to make decisions and to evaluate your suggestions.
"So we're going to be rolling out some very concrete pieces this fall and people will be able to see what Canada would look like, what would be different."
Mulcair noted that the NDP has already laid down some planks: rolling back the retirement age to 65 from 67; launching a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women within 100 days of taking office; using any budget surpluses to reverse the Harper government's plan to slow the rate of increases in federal health care transfers, which could amount to $36 billion less for provincial coffers over the next 10 years.
"These are key themes that are historic for the NDP," Mulcair said.
"I mean, health care was based on the Saskatchewan model of (former premier and first federal NDP leader) Tommy Douglas ... We don't want to go back to where how much you earn determines whether or not you get health care. And that's what we're heading towards if we leave the Conservatives in power."
Mulcair's 97 MPs will begin polishing the soon-to-be-unveiled platform planks during the Edmonton caucus retreat, which begins Tuesday and runs through Thursday.
They'll be hearing from some experts on some of the issues the party intends to address: Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and, tentatively, Calgary's superstar mayor, Naheed Nenshi, on municipalities' dire need for infrastructure funding; Bill Gallagher, a former federal energy regulator and author of Resource Rulers, a book that concludes no natural resource projects will get off the ground in Canada without the permission of and partnership with First Nations.
The choice of Edmonton for the retreat is deliberate. New Democrats are hopeful the party can make some gains in Alberta, particularly in the capital, in the next election.
The NDP has been entirely shut out of Alberta, a rock solid Conservative fortress, in every federal election but three since the province joined Confederation in 1905. It has never held more than one seat in the province at a time. Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan holds the party's sole Alberta seat at the moment.
But with redistribution creating six new, primarily urban ridings, both the NDP and Liberals smell an opportunity to finally break the Tory stranglehold on the province.
However, Mulcair's hard line against the pipelines the province desperately needs to move its oil sands crude to offshore markets could prove a big hurdle to the NDP's long-sought breakthrough.
Mulcair is adamantly opposed to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would take Alberta crude to the U.S. Gulf coast and the two proposals to pipe it to British Columbia's coast, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan.
He does support piping oil sands crude to Canada's east coast, where he envisions refineries to reap the value-added jobs of processing the bitumen domestically, rather than exporting the jobs overseas.
Mulcair maintains his approach is similar to that espoused by fabled former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, which he sums up as "go slow, act like an owner, keep something for the future."
"The rip and ship approach of Stephen Harper isn't working," Mulcair said.
"He doesn't behave like Canadians own their own natural resources. He's more than willing to give it away as fast as he can and without adding any jobs here ... And you know what? A lot of people agree with the Lougheed approach, which is ours."