By MELANIE SEAL
Globe and Mail Update
After an election night that saw her New Democratic Party come close to losing its official party status, leader Alexa McDonough said she was going to back to Parliament Hill to fight for health care.
"I'm more worried tonight than ever about health care in this country," Ms. McDonough said after watching the Liberals win another majority government. She said that the re-election NDP MPs shows "it's clear that health care remains a top priority for Canadians."
Ms. McDonough watched her party flirt with losing official status in early returns, and said afterward that "there were moments when some were concerned we wouldn't win." She added that she would miss members of the NDP team who weren't elected.
The NDP Leader said that she was pleased to be going back into government as an official party, but added, "We've got our work cut out for us."
The NDP won 13 seats, just one more than the 12 needed for official party status in the House.
Official status means the NDP retains a $1.3-million annual parliamentary allocation that goes with official-party status.
Ms. McDonough handily won her Halifax riding Monday.
The NDP never rose above single digits in public opinion polls even though it tied its five-week campaign to health care, the issue Canadians say they feel most strongly about.
In Regina-Qu'Appelle, high-profile NDP MP Lorne Nystrom was re-elected.
The NDP dropped three seats in the Atlantic region, where it won eight of its 19 seats in 1997.
Ms. McDonough, 56, had little trouble defeating her closest competitor, Liberal Kevin Little, to retain the riding she first won in the 1997 federal vote with 49 per cent of ballots.
Ms. McDonough watched results roll in from a suite in a historic downtown Halifax hotel, surrounded by her two grown sons, Travis and Justin, along with other family members including her mother Jean Shaw.
Ms. McDonough, who became party leader in 1995, will face an automatic leadership review next summer when the national party holds its biannual convention.
Analysts and pundits said a poor showing could finally force the NDP to decide where it wants to move and who it wants to represent.
Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Auto Workers union has publicly criticized Ms. McDonough for steering the party off its left-wing course and toward the centre.
Mr. Hargrove claims Ms. McDonough wants to bring business to the table and reform the NDP mandate to attract more middle-class voters.
The leader and other members at one point proposed increasing the NDP's ties to business, something that was angrily shot down by Mr. Hargrove and his followers.
While voters said they liked Ms. McDonough's stand on health, they wanted to hear more about what the NDP stands for.
"I like her, but I want to hear where she stands on crime, on immigration, taxes," said Lily Lee of Toronto, who met Ms. McDonough as the politician campaigned in the city's colourful Kensington Market in the final days before the vote.
Still, the NDP sounded that one-note tune across the country throughout the campaign, almost regardless of what else was happening.
Questions about taxes or the debt? Ms. McDonough would respond that health care was more important.
Social housing? Important for its impact on health care.
When the public grew tired of hearing that message, the NDP wound up bumped to the back pages of newspapers or reduced to a single line in newscasts.
However, it did make for very few gaffes on the campaign trail.
Ms. McDonough was blindsided mid-campaign by revelations that provincial wings of the NDP had accepted donations from Montreal-based Power Corp., which she had complained was too cosy with the Liberals.
And after suggesting only those earning less than $60,000 deserve tax breaks, she refused to define just what she considers wealthy.
Officials said she wanted to keep out of the mudslinging that voters insist they don't like, but which became one of the defining features of the entire campaign.
Ms. McDonough slipped once, comparing Alliance Leader Stockwell Day to a "cockroach," a remark she later said she regretted.
She refused to stage flashy photo-ops and has referred to Mr. Day and Liberal leader Jean Chrétien's name calling "a distraction from the issues."
Ms. McDonough said her party would stand as the conscience in the House of Commons, particularly if the Liberals won a minority government. "We are fighting for nothing less than the future and soul of our nation," Ms. McDonough told a small crowd on Cape Breton Island Sunday.
Before the election was called, the NDP held 19 seats in the House of Commons, most of them in Atlantic Canada with others scattered in pockets across the country.
Under Ms. McDonough's leadership, the NDP led the fight against Liberal government cuts to health care, education and pensions. She consistently called on the government to set targets to reduce unemployment as it did the deficit.
The battle against the Liberals continued during the campaign, as the NDP threw one final punch on its Web site.
"With another Liberal government heading our way, it is vital to elect a strong team of New Democrats to Parliament to remind Jean Chrétien about the things that matter to working families."
She said the Liberals squandered the surplus on "tax cuts for stock brokers and bankers" in the mistaken belief benefits would trickle down to others.
Ms. McDonough became the first woman to lead a recognized political party in Canada when she took the leadership of the NDP in Nova Scotia in 1980.
On Oct. 14, 1995, she was elected Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada.