Does Layton have the nerve?

Jack Layton's return to the floor of the House after hip surgery early this month prompted a rare outpouring of warmth in a bitterly partisan Parliament.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 28, 2011

Jack Layton's return to the floor of the House after hip surgery early this month prompted a rare outpouring of warmth in a bitterly partisan Parliament.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 28, 2011

Jack Layton's return to the floor of the House after hip surgery early this month prompted a rare outpouring of warmth in a bitterly partisan Parliament. As the NDP leader rose stiffly to acknowledge an ovation from all parties, his standing on the federal scene appeared higher than ever. Yet there was an undercurrent of political danger for him even in that moment. With the chance of a spring election growing by the day, would Conservatives and Liberals applaud Layton quite so warmly if they viewed him as a serious threat? At just 60 years old, and only eight years after entering federal politics, he seems at risk of turning into one of those figures, a Robert Stanfield or an Ed Broadbent, more respected than feared.

Still, he remains a man to watch in the pre-election jockeying now consuming Ottawa. The tabling of the budget next week, coming amid the flurry of ethics issues now buffeting Stephen Harper's government, offers the three opposition parties ample opportunity to fell his Conservative minority - if they have the nerve. To survive, if indeed the Prime Minister wants to put off a campaign, he needs just one of them to vote with him. Layton looks like his best hope. In an interview with Maclean's, though, he sounded far from conciliatory. He rhymed off measures he wants added to the budget on pensions, health, home-heating costs and home renovations. Asked to elaborate on how much buy-in from the Tories on what combination of these items might satisfy him, Layton declared, "It isn't a buffet."

All or nothing sounds like bluster, but Layton says Harper's situation is comparable to what Paul Martin faced in 2005. Back then, with the Tories and Bloc Québécois salivating to bring down Martin's scandal-weakened Liberal minority, Layton traded his support for $4.6 billion for NDP priorities like affordable housing and mass transit. Harper now faces charges his party cheated to overspend on ads in the 2006 election, allegations International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda lied to MPs, and accusations that his government denies parliamentarians basic information on how much implementing its policies will cost. It all adds up, Layton argues, to a good time for Harper to learn the virtues of compromise. "If you are going to work in a minority context," he says, "you are going to have to do some things that you don't totally agree with."

Is Layton really in any position to dictate terms? The first questions Ottawa's political insiders ask about him these days concern his health. A little more than a year ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Treatment was entirely successful, he says, as confirmed by "virtually undetectable" PSA levels in the blood test familiar to so many men. But Layton also had to contend with pain from a mysterious fracture to his hip, which worsened to the point where doctors decided to operate early this month. He won't say exactly what the surgeons did, but allows that he's now likely to set off airport metal detectors. He doesn't know what caused the injury, but speculates that years of hard-fought squash games might have contributed. If the government falls next week, Layton says he'll be fit to campaign, but concedes he would be hitting the hustings "in the recovery cycle from hip surgery."

Sympathy won't shield him from what is shaping up as a key Tory line of attack no matter when the campaign comes. Ever since the three opposition parties formed a coalition to try to replace him in the fall of 2008, Harper has been saying he needs a majority to prevent them from attempting it again. Asked repeatedly if he is open to participating in such a coalition after the next election, Layton studiously avoids uttering the "C" word. "I am somebody who has always said that I will work with other parties, always, and have done so," he says. "So it will come as no surprise to anybody when they hear that I'm willing to work with other parties to get things done in the Parliament."

That sounds like a yes. Harper contends, however, that if his Conservatives place first, but short of a majority, the opposition parties shouldn't be allowed to join forces to govern without him. He points to what transpired after no party secured a majority in Britain's election last year - the first-place Conservatives forming a coalition with the third-place Liberal Democrats. The lesson, according to Harper: "Winners are the ones who form governments." Layton says he finds that "rather ironic," since Harper invoked no such doctrine back in 2004, when Layton, Harper and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe jointly wrote then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson, asking her to consult them first - presumably to ask if they could all line up behind a Harper-led regime - if the Liberal minority of the day sought to dissolve Parliament and force an election.

The coalition issue remains so novel in Canada that how it might play out over a full campaign is impossible to predict. Public opinion turned against the concept in the fall of 2008, but a senior NDP campaign strategist says debate surrounding it could actually help them in an election. The NDP has long struggled against the reluctance of many voters to cast a ballot for a party that doesn't stand much chance of winning. If the possibility of a coalition with the Liberals gains wider acceptance, the strategist says, then Layton's platform will be have to be viewed more seriously as a potential part of that government policy. Winning outright won't be everything anymore. Some NDP organizers hope that realization will force the media, and the public, to pay closer attention to Layton's positions on the issues.

Just don't expect the NDP and Liberals to mount anything resembling a coordinated campaign. In fact, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's strategists vow to pursue NDP voters as never before. They view the Tory vote as unusually solid. That leaves Ignatieff striving to draw traditional Liberal voters who stayed home in 2008 back to the polls, and tug NDP, Bloc and Green voters into their camp. He will try to create a polarized campaign mood, one in which left-of-centre voters fear a Conservative majority so much that they turn to the Liberals out of determination to deny Harper the ability to govern as he chooses.

But the NDP is, at the same time, zeroing in on a slice of the Liberal base in painstakingly identified ridings. NDP campaign director Brad Lavigne says the party spent last fall conducting its most detailed polling analysis ever into this "next tranche" of support, enough to lift them from the just over 18 per cent of the popular vote they won in the 2008 election to about the mid-20s. The new voters they need to grab are now overwhelmingly Liberal supporters. So Lavigne says the NDP campaign he's ready to launch, including its ads, will take aim at Ignatieff, along with Harper. Layton, however, insists he has only one prime target. "Our campaign," he said, "is against the Harper Conservatives and their policies."

Layton needs to somehow broaden his party's demographic. NDP support has traditionally been concentrated among younger voters, many in their 20s and 30s, and especially women. Lavigne says that next tier of potential NDP voters tend to be older and are equally likely to be male or female. They are also solidly middle class and probably live in "an average suburb." Policies Layton is highlighting during his pre-budget positioning look custom-tailored for that audience. For those old enough to be worried about retiring, he stresses expanding the Canada Pension Plan. For middle-class families in their suburban homes, he's asking the Tories to bring back the popular EcoEnergy incentives for home renovations.

Watch for the platform, however, to take a back seat to Layton's leadership qualities in NDP ads. "Federal politics," Lavigne says, "is more leader-centred than in the past." As usual, Layton looks stronger than his party brand. A March 10 Angus Reid poll pegged his approval rating at 34 per cent, a shade better than Harper's 32 per cent, and far better than Ignatieff's 14 per cent. So Ignatieff's standing badly lags Liberal support, and Harper's is about equal with Tory popularity, while Layton's rating is running in front of the NDP's. Lavigne says that means Layton has more potential to lift his party. That's assuming, of course, that his approval score has real potential to be converted into NDP ballots, and isn't just the polling equivalent of a fond standing ovation in the House of Commons for a familiar, respected figure.

Maclean's March 28, 2011

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