Former union head Nycole Turmel is no stranger to leadership

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada Nycole Turmel holds a news conference to in Ottawa, Friday October 7, 2005. Jack Layton is temporarily stepping down as N-D-P leader to fight another form of cancer.He's recommending that NDP caucus chair Turmel serve as interim leader (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS/FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With little experience in Parliament, Nycole Turmel will have to draw on her time as a big union boss as she takes over as the temporary leader of the Official Opposition.

First elected on May 2, the 68-year-old MP is deemed a neutral pick to replace NDP Leader Jack Layton at least until Sept. 19, when the House of Commons returns from its summer break.

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While she is a rookie on the Hill, Ms. Turmel has strong credentials for the position after being unanimously selected as NDP caucus chair by her colleagues two months ago, and as the former president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. The bilingual MP for the riding of Hull-Aylmer is used to communicating with Canadians on complex files and overseeing a large organization, without being seen as an eventual contender for the NDP leadership, whenever the position next becomes vacant.

She will have to prepare the NDP for the fall sitting of Parliament, but Ms. Turmel will also be expected to be ready to continue in her position for a longer period, depending on the evolution of Mr. Layton's fight against cancer. In that context, Ms. Turmel will become one of the main public faces of the NDP, which rode Mr. Layton's coattails to a second-place finish in Parliament fewer than three months ago.

"She'll have to provide the continuity that the party requires, and give it confidence because Jack Layton's temporary absence will raise issues in people's minds and shake the confidence of what is a very young caucus," said Kathy Brock, a professor of political science at Queen's University.

"The other challenge will be to prepare the party in the event that [Mr. Layton]doesn't return [in September]" said Ms. Brock, who added that Ms. Turmel could eventually see the party through a leadership race.

Ms. Turmel started her involvement with PSAC during the 1980 strike by federal clerks as one of 50,000 workers who took to the streets to fight for better wages.

She quickly moved up the ranks of the union, and was acting president in the late 1990s when Ottawa announced its plans to settle a long-standing pay equity dispute with its female workers. The $3-billion settlement was one of the high points in Ms. Turmel's PSAC career, which ended in 2006.

After a failed bid in municipal politics in Gatineau, Que., Ms. Turmel was part of the "orange wave" that swept Quebec in the last federal election, beating the incumbent in the traditional Liberal stronghold of Hull-Aylmer by 23,000 votes.

Current PSAC president John Gordon said that Ms. Turmel is an energetic leader and a quick study, and that she will have no problems consulting with her colleagues before putting out NDP policies to the public. The key, he said, will be to get the caucus working together.

"She is a rookie MP, but she is not a rookie when it comes to dealing with major issues and political issues," Mr. Gordon said. "A leader has to come from somewhere, and there have been lots of leaders who were not MPs when they were elected, such as Jack Layton."

Ms. Turmel issued a statement on Monday on behalf of the NDP caucus, expressing her hopes that Mr. Layton has a "speedy recovery."

While she said she had no further comments to make on the matter, she told a local radio station earlier in the day that her goal was to let Mr. Layton "focus on his health, and we'll do everything we can to be ready to return to the House in September."

Ms. Turmel's nomination as interim leader is expected to be discussed at a caucus meeting on Wednesday and be ratified on Thursday by the party's federal council.