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Layton tasked with turning unseasoned caucus into Opposition

"Now, Layton has more ability to shape the public agenda, and for the first time he will have to say 'no', a word that has not been in the NDP lexicon in the past." says Akaash Maharaj.


Jessica Hume
03 May 2011

The National Post

OTTAWA - The country’s 41st parliament will take place in unchartered territory for all parties, but none more so than for Jack Layton, who needs to transform what has been a third party into the Official Opposition.

Akaash Maharaj, senior resident at Massey College, said the swell of NDP support — in Quebec in particular — was largely a product of promises Mr. Layton made but was never in a position to keep.

“When the NDP was the third party, it had relatively little power and the result was that Layton could say whatever he wanted to appeal to whatever constituents he wanted,” [Mr.] Maharaj said. “Now, he has more ability to shape the public agenda, and for the first time he will have to say ‘no’, a word that has not been in the NDP lexicon in the past.”

And yet, the NDP’s success is primarily a product of Mr. Layton himself. Many new NDP MPs owe their seats to him directly, Mr. Maharaj said, and pursuant to that, the opposition leader will enjoy a relatively pliable caucus to whom he can delegate responsibilities and over whom he will hold considerable sway.

The NDP picked up two new seats in Atlantic Canada, but its most significant inroads were made in Quebec, where the party went from having a single incumbent ahead of the election – Thomas Mulcair in Outremont – to capturing dozens of seats when candidates who never expected to win, did. Among them are students in the process of completing university degrees, an assistant manager at a pub who spent half the campaign in Las Vegas and a handful of others for whom Quebec’s official language remains elusive.

“It will be a steep learning curve – for individuals and for the caucus as a whole,” said Dr. Kathy Brock, associate professor at the School of Policy Studies and the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. “The challenge for Jack Layton will be to keep his caucus in line.”

That challenge is complex.

If the Bloc no longer has enough seats to qualify as a party, Dr. Brock says the sentiment behind it is still very much alive. Because rather than a push away from the sovereignty agenda, she says NDP voters in Quebec were wooed by the social democratic values of the NDP.

“I’m not sure the Bloc going down to four seats is as positive as some people are indicating; support for separatism in Quebec is not below 30%,” she said. “The separatist voice in Parliament has been lost, and that could lead to a legitimate argument from Quebec that they don’t have a voice in Canada or Quebec.”

Regardless of what happens over the coming months, in addition to 104 seats in the House, Mr. Layton has also won himself time – four years over which to develop his party into an alternative government. Bill Tieleman, former NDP strategist and head of West Star Communications, said the challenges Mr. Layton faces over the next few years are enormous, but that “this is what he’s been looking for.”

“We’re in for a tumultuous few years,” Mr. Tieleman said. “The long-gun registry is dead, there will be public service cuts to fund corporate tax cuts there will be more polarization in the country. But from the NDP’s perspective, if you want to be the government, you have to be the opposition first. The challenges facing the NDP are huge, but they also have an opportunity to develop and to exploit the mistakes the Conservatives will make.”

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