ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Tom Mulcair has put New Democrats on notice: the road to the next election starts now.

"We're not waiting until 2015 to prove that New Democrats are ready to lead this country," the federal NDP leader told his 100 MPs Thursday as the party closed out its a three-day caucus retreat.

"That work starts today."

Mulcair wasted no time putting his party on a war footing, rallying his troops with a stinging indictment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's record.

He accused Harper's Conservatives of abandoning or slashing cherished social programs like old age security, employment insurance and universal public health care, while dishing out massive tax cuts for well-connected insiders and some of the country's worst polluters.

"Here we have a prime minister who tells us that the services and benefits Canadians have relied upon for generations have suddenly become unaffordable."

Canada used to be a place, he said, where people could earn fair wages to support their families and retire with dignity. Under the Tories, Canada "is becoming unrecognizable."

Mulcair also denounced the Conservatives as inept fiscal managers who refuse to accept responsibility for even the most egregious mistakes, such as the botched procurement of F-35 fighter jets, the cost of which is "spiralling out of control."

"This is a prime minister who refused to accept even an ounce of accountability after a spring full of scandals. Instead, he's dug in his heels," Mulcair said.

"Well, I have a message for the prime minister today: Mr. Harper, Canadians are tired of the scandal and mismanagement of your government. And New Democrats are ready to show them that we can do better."

Mulcair's speech was long on critique of the Harper government but short on how the NDP would do things differently, apart from vague vows to make Canada more prosperous, more environmentally sustainable and more equitable for all.

But New Democrats say Mulcair will be fleshing out the plan over the next two years as the party ramps up for the next election.

Mulcair has told his party it must be fully ready by the fall of 2014 for an election he predicts will come in the spring of 2015.