The news last week that Jack Layton was taking some time off to fight another bout of cancer cams as shocking to a lot of politicos cross-country. This man is a lion. He defeated the strain of pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with in February, had hip surgery in March, and then got out on the campaign trail in April, leading his party to its biggest victory ever in May. You know the old marine motto about doing more before 6 am… Well Jack Layton may not be a marine, but by any standard, that is a pretty eventful spring.
Now, I’m not a doctor, but anecdotally-speaking some of Layton’s recent public appearances have not painted the picture of a man who’s got a full health bar, to use video game parlance. Of course the stress of a major illness and a cross-country Federal campaign doesn’t do much for one’s stress levels, but all-in-all Layton’s physical struggles seems to have not damped even slightly the man’s vigour and commitment to leading his party to heights never before thought possible. At least until now that is.
Now it’s not all bad news. Layton intends to be back in time for the recommencement of Parliament in mid-September. In the meantime, Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmelhas was Layton’s personal selection for interim leader. She’s a rookie MP and part of the NDP’s “Orange Revolution” during May’s Federal Election, and on the face of things, politically, that makes a lot of sense. But the selection of Turmelhas, no matter how temporary, is odd because she leap-frogged over deputy leaders Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davies, as well as party stalwart Paul Dewar. And all things being equal, the NDP hasn’t had a lot of luck when one of their freshmen class is thrust into the spotlight.
And make no mistake, leadership matters. Could the NDP have made the gains they have without Layton at the helm? Possibly, but not probably. Layton’s miracle with the NDP is that he was able to play on even-keel with the two traditional main party leaders, and in recent years, even best them in national debates. He wasn’t whiny, he wasn’t resentful, and he came across as completely forthright, confident and ready to serve. Cogito ergo sum. Despite his small caucus he believed he was a national leader, therefore he was a national leader.
By comparison, think of the former leader of the Ontario wing of the NDP, Howard Hampton. I remember exactly two things that Hampton did in the 2003 Provincial campaign: 1) he tried nailing Jell-O to a wall, and 2) he had several huge dollar sign sacs on a flat bed truck be driven down a Toronto street as a visual aid during a speech. I can’t remember what either of those things were supposed to symbolize, but I remember that Hampton did them, and along with then-Premier Ernie Eves’ “reptilian kitten eater” comment, they probably painted Dalton McGuinty as the sanest choice for Queen’s Park.
Sadly appearances matter, and in the case of Jack Layton the appearance was of a man working hard to get your vote. Since his first election as party leader in 2004, Layton has led the NDP to posting a bigger share of the popular vote, even if their total number of seats didn’t increase; his predecessor Alexa McDonough didn’t post better than 11.05 per cent in the 1997 election. It’s why commentators were hesitant to call Layton’s ascension to Official Opposition leader an overnight success. It was a victory eight years in the making, and if the intention was to form an NDP government then they’re one more move shy of their goals.
But if Layton’s health continues to be an issue, then a question of more permanent leadership will have to be addressed, and like of all the major Federal parties, no clear successor is obvious. And the NDP is painted in a tight corner too. While the tenor of Quebecers and their new found allegiance to the NDP may not be fly-by-night, they’ll want to see progress on what the Orange can do for them. At the same time though, none of the new 59 NDP MPs from Quebec are probably leadership ready, though do the residents of “La belle province” have expectations that way? I doubt it.
Either way, Layton will be a tough act to follow in Ottawa. Not that we want anyone to follow him yet. He’s worked too long and hard to get that seat directly across from the Prime Minister, and I have a feeling that even Stephen Harper is relishing a real challenge in the Commons. Get well soon, Jack.