The next federal election is more than three years away, but Thomas Mulcair is warning his troops to be battle ready by 2014 – especially here in the Atlantic provinces.
It is no coincidence that the federal NDP scheduled its annual summer caucus meeting in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the party holds just two of seven seats. This province elected its first New Democrat MP in two decades in 2008, and its second in 2011. And a recent poll suggested the party was leading the Conservatives provincially for the first time in history.
All of which has Mr. Mulcair eyeing the other five constituencies, which are held by four Liberals and a Conservative.
"As you talk to the local media, they always say, 'There are only so many seats here in Newfoundland and Labrador,' and I say, 'Yeah, and I'm coming to get them,'" Mr. Mulcair told The Globe and Mail during a private interview on Wednesday. When the next federal election rolls around, 338 seats will be up for grabs, and the NDP would need 170 to win a majority, he said. "There is no fooling around."
Although that vote is legislated to take place in October, 2015, Mr. Mulcair is concerned that the Conservatives will pull a fast one. So he has imposed a two-year deadline for preparedness.
Newfoundland and Labrador is not the only province in his sights. Mr. Mulcair is talking about New Brunswick, where the party has one seat, and Prince Edward Island, which has so far resisted its overtures.
He said he is aware of the importance of a breakthrough in the urban ridings around Toronto, and in Saskatchewan, where New Democrats keep falling short. But Atlantic Canada is a primary goal.
"We know that the three Maritime provinces – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI – and all of the Atlantic including Newfoundland and Labrador, are target-rich for us in the next election campaign because their values are our values," Mr. Mulcair said.
"When we talk about regional differences and the fact that employment insurance has to take into account the fact that their economies are based on seasonal employment, the Conservatives just don't get that. They have a tin ear for regional issues, and we are starting to score heavily on that."
And he is not just thinking federally – although he says that is his overriding objective.
The former Quebec Liberal who took over as leader of the NDP last March, is intent on building the brand provincially across Canada. The provincial New Democrats, unlike the Liberals or the Conservatives, are affiliated with their federal cousins, and support at one level means support at the other.
It is why he campaigned in New Brunswick for Dominic Cardy in a byelection this summer. Mr. Cardy placed third despite being his party's leader, but Mr. Mulcair chooses to focus on the fact that the NDP share of the popular vote tripled since the general election of 2010. And it is why he aspires to build a provincial wing in Quebec.
Those plans have been set back somewhat by the slim minority that Pauline Marois and her separatist Parti Québécois eked out in an election this week. Mr. Mulcair explained that a majority government would have given the New Democrats four years to create riding associations and build support. But the next election could happen at any time.
"So I'm not going to divide our forces," Mr. Mulcair said. "There is a basic rule in politics and campaigning of any kind: you don't take your eye off your prime objective. And my prime objective is the 2015 election campaign."
For years, NDP leaders have been telling Canadian voters there is an alternative to the Liberals and the Conservatives. It was mantra of Mr. Mucair's predecessor, Jack Layton. People in Quebec started to listen in the last election, pushing the New Democrats onto the benches of the Official Opposition, while the Liberals were left in the political hinterland.
"There's a new game in town and that's been a game-changer in Ottawa, the fact that we're a much stronger and much tougher opposition to Stephen Harper than anyone's ever put up," Mr. Mulcair said.
When the Liberals were in opposition, that party had to balance between challenging a minority Conservative government and prompting an unwanted election. That meant they had to allow policies they opposed become law. The New Democrats don't have that problem, given that they are up against a majority.
They also have time to prepare for the next vote, which is where Mr. Mulcair is channeling his energy from the vantage of second place in the House.
"Once we became the Official Opposition, people began seeing us more as the government in waiting," he said. When "you become the government in waiting, it's a state of mind not a state of fact. People have to see you that way."