Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said Tuesday that her party plans to hold Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to account on the upcoming budget, health-care funding and First Nations poverty when Parliament resumes sitting next week.
Turmel laid out her party's priorities for the months ahead as the NDP began a winter caucus meeting on Parliament Hill Tuesday morning.
She said the NDP plans to follow the same strategy as it did in the fall, questioning the government and meeting Canadians, telling them what the Conservatives are doing, and not doing.
On the upcoming budget, Turmel said her party will continue to fight for Canadian families. She said the NDP wants to ensure that the government-wide cuts won't affect services for Canadians.
"Our caucus has been everywhere, and everybody is really clear they want us to represent and make sure that Canadian families can survive and can be able to eat at the end of the month, that's what we want to do," she told reporters.
The NDP wants to see more money for First Nations in the next budget, Turmel said, and she wants to hear a commitment from the government that it will work with First Nations leaders to help lift communities out of poverty.
The government is holding a Crown-First Nations meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday, but Harper is leaving it before the day is over in order to depart for a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Turmel suggested Harper's early departure indicated he did not make the gathering a priority.
She didn't give many specifics on what she would like to see in the budget on health care, other than saying the federal government should sit down with the provinces to negotiate future transfer payments and that the NDP wants to see more human resources in the system.
"We want to make sure there are enough doctors and nurses and that it is still a universal program," she said.
The current health transfer payment accord expires in 2014, and the federal government announced its post-2014 plan for funding last month. It did not negotiate a new deal with the provinces, which has caused tension in federal-provincial relations.
Support solid, Turmel says
Turmel, who has exactly two months left in her role as interim leader, rejected recent polls that suggest a slip in NDP support.
"I'm just back from Quebec, that's not what I hear in Quebec and everywhere it's the same," she said. Turmel said her MPs are reporting back that constituents are happy with their work in Ottawa.
She said the current leadership race isn't conflicting with the Official Opposition's work in the House of Commons.
"We are doing great work," she said.
Peter Julian, the NDP's caucus chair, told reporters on Monday ahead of the meeting that MPs have been busy listening to their constituents during the last few weeks away from Parliament Hill and that they are coming back with a "renewed sense of urgency."
"We're more aware than ever of the situation of Canadian families who are fighting every day to make ends meet," he said.
"We come back from these five weeks in our ridings full of energy, united and ready to continue to fight to prevent Stephen Harper from ruining the society that Canadians have put so much effort into building," he said.
Julian said the NDP will condemn the expected cuts to jobs and services in the budget and will "also inform Canadians of the serious consequences these cutbacks will have." He is also serving as finance critic because Toronto MP Peggy Nash had to give up the role once she entered the NDP's leadership race.
NDP caucus dropped in size over break
The NDP caucus lost one member during the winter break thanks to the defection of Lise St-Denis to the Liberals. The Quebec MP announced on Jan. 10 that she was joining the third party in the House of Commons and said she had been pondering the move for months because of the differences in policies between the two parties.
The NDP, now with 101 MPs, has challenged St-Denis to resign and run as a Liberal in a byelection, a demand she has rejected.
In an interview Tuesday with CBC's Power & Politics host Evan Solomon, Turmel said that she heard a lot of feedback from constituents in the Saint-Maurice–Champlain riding when she toured Quebec in recent weeks.
"They are really angry at this," she said, noting that the Liberals finished fourth in the May 2 election in that riding.
The NDP will elect its new leader on March 24 at a convention in Toronto, and Tuesday marks the closing of registration for candidates. Barring any last-minute entries, the field stands at eight people: MPs Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, and Romeo Saganash, and Brian Topp, former president of the NDP, and Martin Singh, a pharmacist from Nova Scotia.
They will be facing off in the second official debate on Sunday in Halifax, and an organizer told CBC's Susan Lunn that some tweaks have been made to the format since the first one, based on feedback from the candidates and the public.
Sally Housser said there would be more time for open debate among the contestants and a segment that will mimic question period in the House of Commons.
The NDP's caucus chair said that the leadership race has not detracted from work in the House of Commons and that candidates have been talking to Canadians across the country.
"Within Parliament our caucus will be very disciplined, very focused, very energetic and very united, because we're hearing from Canadians their concerns about the direction this government is taking," Julian said.
Nash, speaking to reporters on her way into Tuesday's meeting said the leadership race hasn't had a negative impact on the caucus. She said it is a large caucus with many capable MPs and that she has confidence in them.