Nycole Turmel admits the job is a lot harder then she thought.
Taking over, on an interim basis, the leadership of the New Democratic Party in the wake of Jack Layton’s death is not really what she thought she would be doing when she got into politics.
A former public sector union leader from Gatineau, Que., Turmel thought she was entering the political game as an ordinary MP representing her riding.
A portfolio as a critic in the NDP official Opposition was a good bet.
Instead, she was thrust into the limelight as the politician who daily has to tangle with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a man emboldened by the majority government Canadians gave him May 2.
“It’s a challenge, a very great challenge,” Turmel said in a year-end interview with the Montreal Gazette after admitting she’s anxious for the Christmas break from the House to get some rest.
“I can say honestly, it is not easy, and I recognize that.”
Turmel, 69, has been criticized for not being able to push the Harper government onto the ropes effectively enough. Some have said her English is not clear enough.
Bills such as those abolishing the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly grain marketing and ending the long-gun registry have been pushed by the majority with little debate. NDP amendments were often ignored.
As for Quebec’s interests in Ottawa, the NDP has had to juggle the competing interests of a nationwide caucus too, which has made the NDP a target for further criticism because Quebecers had grown used to the undivided attention of the Bloc Quebecois.
With no possibility of forming government and little else to do, the Bloc over the years mastered the art of slamming and complaining.
But it would be wrong to heap all the blame on Turmel who has had to face a government determined to impose its agenda after years of minority status.
The fact most of the NDPs A-team of veteran MPs are out campaigning for the leadership did not help either.
“A lot of the members of the first line were out travelling the country and that might have had an effect on our performance,” Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair — himself a candidate — said in an interview.
“It’s a very big country that’s required those of us who are running to be away.”
Mulcair added it was the party’s decision to ask candidates to step down from their parliamentary functions for duration of the campaign.
Mulcair normally is the NDP house leader, organizing opposition questions and firing a few salvos of his own across the floor himself too.
The NDP’s image has certainly slipped, particularly in Quebec which sent 59 MPs — the majority of the caucus — to Ottawa on May 2.
A Leger Marketing poll commissioned by the Gazette in early November showed that, for the first time since the election, the NDP had slipped six points.
Support for the NDP in Quebec was pegged at 37 per cent (down from 43 per cent in October) while the nearest competitor for the same pool of left-leaning voters, the Bloc Quebecois, was up by six (from 21 per cent to 27 per cent).
Turmel said she does not comment on polls but her opponents in the Bloc sure do — especially given the dire state of that party, reduced to a rump of four seats in the last election.
Elected the new leader of the Bloc on Dec. 11, Daniel Paille immediately leaped into the fray to attack the party that ravaged them so badly in May.
He said the NDP’s inability to defend Quebec’s interests in the same way the Bloc used to explains part of the NDP’s slide.
“The NDP house members from Quebec are there because they are truly Canadian first,” Paille said at his first news conference as leader. “If they have a question, if they have a problem, they have to go to the national caucus in Ottawa, wait to express their opinions about (issues related to) Quebec values in comparison to the (issues related to) Canadian values.”
He mentioned the awarding of $33 billion in federal shipyard contracts to British Columbia and Nova Scotia with nothing for the Davie shipyards in Levis, Que.
Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer declared it “a great day for Canada,” but Quebec’s NDP MPs were dismayed.
“They are federalists, remember this,” Paille said. “NDP members are federalists.”
Turmel conceded some mistakes were made by the greenhorns. They overlooked the fact a candidate for the Supreme Court, Michael Moldaver, was a unilingual anglophone even if the NDP traditionally pushes for bilingualism.
“Yes, there was an error in fact there,” Turmel said.
It failed again to check the linguistic qualifications of the new unilingual auditor-general, Michael Ferguson.
Some things were likely beyond the NDP’s control, such as the Conservative government’s decision to pull out of the Kyoto climate change accord.
And the Liberal opposition experienced the same kind of frustration with the Conservatives as immortalized in the incident in which Liberal MP Justin Trudeau called Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of s—.”
Kent had chided opposition parties for not attending the latest international climate change conference in South Africa even though he blocked them from going.
Turmel got into the mudslinging too, complaining about the government’s arrogance.
“As a majority, they acted like dictators,” Turmel said in early December.
In the interview, Turmel said she is proud of the NDP’s performance and took credit for holding the government’s feet to the fire over its plans to eliminate the gun registry, standing up for the Quebec cabinet ministers who went to Ottawa — in vain — to ask for the data back before it is destroyed.
The NDP stated it believes the number of additional seats being offered to Quebec in the government’s voter re-distribution plan is sufficient.
And on infrastructure, Turmel said, the NDP pressed the government into doing something about the crumbling Champlain Bridge.
“They made an announcement but they have not taken any action yet,” Turmel said. “They made the promise but since then not a peep.”
But she argued many of Quebec’s problems are the same as those in the rest of Canada especially on things like employment.
“We consider we well represented Quebec,” Turmel said. “We are a party which can represent all Canadians.
“The Bloc can never get power. We can. We can take power to change things.”