Layton's New Ambition

The dark cars with the tinted windows roll up and Jack Layton emerges, an RCMP detail, as all candidates for prime minister are afforded, in tow.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 29, 2008

The dark cars with the tinted windows roll up and Jack Layton emerges, an RCMP detail, as all candidates for prime minister are afforded, in tow.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 29, 2008

The dark cars with the tinted windows roll up and Jack Layton emerges, an RCMP detail, as all candidates for prime minister are afforded, in tow. For a second, in suit and tie, he looks serious, but then he thrusts a hand into a pants pocket and the smile returns - the eager grin that's as much a fixture of his face as that moustache. His younger sister, travelling with him on this campaign, brings him a glass of water, the same glass of water that is brought to him before every engagement, and Layton takes a gulp. He walks then toward the faux-marble podium here at a small public square in the middle of downtown Montreal, water fountains and trees and gleaming glass towers behind him for the sake of the cameras, smiling even wider as a dozen NDP candidates applaud his arrival.

After some fiddling about, the tour techs had positioned the spotlight just so. Another choreographer, a short woman wearing all black with a matching headset, had lined the candidates up nicely behind the podium, adjusting for symmetry and reminding those to the right and left to turn slightly inward. After introductions from two of those candidates - including Thomas Mulcair, who appears visibly giddy in his presence - Layton steps to the podium and ad-libs a joke about some of the travelling press having been out a little late the night before, mindful of course to refer to the scene of this revelry as "my hometown." Then he makes his pitch - the altogether audacious point of all this. "You deserve strong leadership on climate change. You deserve a prime minister who is going to stand up to the big polluters and the boardroom table interests when it comes to the environment," he says, by way of outlining his party's environmental platform. "On Oct. 14, I'm asking for your support to be that prime minister."

The morning sun is bright, the air is not yet too warm and the pitch is as subtle as a punch in the chest. Stéphane Dion, his main rival for the hearts and minds of those on the left, is mentioned only to assert the Liberal leader's irrelevance. ("You may have noticed I haven't had much to say about Mr. Dion in this election, and that may not change," Layton says. "I'm beginning to think that Mr. Dion is not going to be the main issue in this election.") The heft and force of Layton's rhetorical energies are reserved for Stephen Harper.

A reporter asks about a new NDP ad that takes vicious aim at the Conservative leader, a French clip filled with soldiers and tanks and the ghostly visage of the U.S. President. "I believe that a lot of people are concerned about the direction that Stephen Harper is taking the country," Layton says. "And I don't apologize for taking him on the kind of future that his policies will take us toward."

Another reporter sarcastically wonders why the NDP campaign has had an uncanny habit of following the Conservative tour across the country. "We're challenging the Prime Minister," Layton intones, refusing to take the joke. "And hoping to replace him."

Before the time for questions comes to an end, someone asks if Layton's worried about one of this campaign's televised debates being overshadowed by a U.S. vice-presidential debate, scheduled for the same night. Layton takes the opportunity to all but threaten the Prime Minister with physical harm. "I hope that people will tune into the debate because I'll promise you this," he says, "I'm going to challenge Stephen Harper for his job like he's never been challenged before."

In the first week of Jack Layton's third federal campaign, the charter jet emblazoned with his name travelled 13,484 km, touching down in 11 cities - a pace and path befitting the pitch. Jack Layton wants to be prime minister. The party, emboldened by Layton's personal popularity, has put him before all else. And in addition to saying so, loudly and insistently, Layton and the NDP seem determined to look the part. "For the first time in a long time, the leader of the official opposition is not the prime minister in waiting," says Brad Lavigne, the seriously enthusiastic party strategist and television pundit. "The prime minister in waiting in Canada is Jack Layton. The campaign has been built around that premise."

In his first remarks, delivered to cheering supporters across the river from Ottawa, the Parliament buildings looming behind him, Layton spoke transparently of change, begging for comparisons to Barack Obama. He spoke wistfully of the "kitchen table," that iconic cliché of Americana and an image he clings to so consistently that travelling reporters dubbed the NDP plane Kitchen Air.

What's followed has often seemed very American. American being the Canadian word for professional. "If you're applying for the position of prime minister, then you're going to have to have government-grade campaigning," Lavigne says. "Everything from the transportation of the tour to where you're going, the messaging, the leader's speeches, the television or print ads, the material on the ground - everything needs to reinforce what story you want to tell to the Canadian people."

Though the Conservatives and Liberals have aired more ads, the two best clips of the campaign so far belong to the NDP. Both ads - one produced by an agency that's also worked with Ikea, Molson Canadian and Pfizer - are vivid and stylish and vaguely hip, the French ad a particularly jolting montage that compares Harper to George W. Bush on matters of war, oil and gay marriage. (Though barely noticed in the campaign's first week, it is perhaps the most aggressive ad a Canadian election has seen in recent memory.)

Blessed of previously unknown wealth - $1.1 million committed already to advertising in Quebec - the party has apparently seen fit to indulge. Reporters returning to the hotel after that announcement in Montreal found a media tent outfitted with all the aplomb of an outdoor wedding. Beneath a white tent, reporters sat at tables with white tablecloths and dined on a buffet of fish, chicken and rice as three bow-tied waiters hovered nearby. Boarding the flight to St. John's that night, the press corps was offered fresh Montreal bagels and smoked salmon. Flight attendants brought around beef and chicken skewers before a dinner that included steak, potatoes, raspberry cheesecake and their choice of wine. One veteran of national campaigns claimed never to have been fed so well. "We've been planning this campaign since the first day after the last one," says Lavigne. "We knew that when it was to come, we would run the best campaign in our party's history."

Indeed, the NDP campaign has been a veritable feast for the journalistic senses, reporters regularly spoon-fed generous helpings of stage-managed symbolism. After the campaign launch in Gatineau, there was a rally in Harper's Calgary riding. "I'm here in Stephen Harper's riding to file my application for his job," Layton declared. There was a flight over the oil sands in Alberta so Layton could pledge a halt to new development and a more environmentally friendly approach in the future. In St. John's, Layton declared war on corporate self-interest from the front lawn of a humble suburban home, the humble suburban family posed rigidly behind him. At week's end, there was a sign-waving rally in downtown Toronto and a round table with ethnic media in Brampton (the first time an NDP campaign had visited the Liberal riding since Layton became leader).

And while much of this shouldn't matter in determining who will lead a G8 country, it obviously does. All the more so for Jack Layton. Indeed, that he is presently running for prime minister is both obvious (as a national party leader that's the job he's inherently seeking) and revolutionary. The party has never so much as formed the official opposition and even in the relatively successful Layton era, it has struggled to convince more than 20 per cent of the population to vote in its favour. Last time around, in 2006, the party's central message was "lend us your vote." But now, no matter the giggles they may provoke by saying so, the NDP wants to be taken seriously. So the campaign is slick in its production and generous in its gifts (at the end of the first week, each reporter received an autographed copy of one of Layton's books). And, with the Liberals still disoriented in the post-Chrétien era and Dion struggling to lead, Layton is going about the complicated business of seeming all things to all people while remaining just socialist enough to justify his party's existence.

He offers to be both "bold" and "prudent." To combat global warming, he promises to institute a "mainstream" cap-and-trade system for industry emissions not unlike that favoured by John McCain and, to some extent, Stephen Harper. But he also promises to ban ATM fees, cap credit card interest rates and investigate gas price inflation. He takes every opportunity to decry Stephen Harper for putting the boardroom table before the kitchen table, vows to rescind corporate tax breaks and talks of creating a jobs commissioner to investigate shutdowns. But, standing in front of the General Motors headquarters in Oshawa, he also announced $8 billion over four years to help the ailing titans of the manufacturing sector move toward so-called "Green Collar" jobs. He won't raise personal taxes, but there will be money for health care, public transit and training. And he points out that NDP governments have a history of balanced budgets (with the obvious exception of Bob Rae in Ontario).

Layton is a transparently skilled politician, able to personalize himself and his party to whatever the situation. Montreal was his "hometown," but in Toronto, he was glad to be "home." Speaking to members of the ethnic media in Brampton, he highlights the Chinese descent of his wife (NDP MP Olivia Chow). At a gathering of university students, he recalls his time as a professor and his failed bid for a student council position. But if his campaign to be taken seriously succeeds, the scrutiny will only increase. And while Lavigne considers that a burden the campaign is willing to bear, it's unclear how well Layton will be able to schmooze his way through the trickier matters of this election.

On the first controversy of the campaign, whether Elizabeth May should be included in the debates, he stumbled for two days before conceding defeat. On Afghanistan he says he will bring Canadian troops back home and broker peace. But it's unclear how he would do so in a way that wouldn't be disastrous for everyone involved. Pressed by a reporter in Brampton for his position on Pakistan's role in Afghanistan, Layton could only offer vague assurances of negotiation and respect. And on the most problematic question of realpolitik facing the party - whether voting for the NDP only enables a Conservative majority - Layton and others have yet to formulate a satisfactory response.

"The answer to that question," Lavigne responds, "is this campaign.

"Jack Layton thinks he's Obama," Bob Rae recently blogged. "What a joke. He's Ralph Nader." It's a comparison not without merit. But it perhaps discounts the vulnerabilities of the two dominant parties in this case. Not to mention Layton's political gifts.

In a room just down the hall from the cafeteria at Memorial University in St. John's, 150 students have ostensibly gathered to share their concerns with the NDP leader. Layton enters to the strains of Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It, taking the microphone and encouraging the crowd to sing along with a song that was first released before most of them were born.

He opens with a joke, about members of the press having been out a little late the night before, and then makes his pitch. "If Stephen Harper is not willing to stand up to the big oil companies, you can count on me to do so as your prime minister," he says. "I'll watch your back if he's not prepared to do it."

Blessed of a forgiving audience with friendly questions - though not scripted questions, as they reportedly were at a gathering earlier in the week - Layton speaks easily, seemingly never failing to satisfy his interrogators. In due course he manages to pledge support for soldiers, peace, proportional representation, affordable housing, students, women and seniors. He praises the leadership of previous party leaders, even as he represents everything they weren't. A woman asks about the lack of foreign policy on the NDP website. Layton promises to get right on that.

The students are lined up along three walls, nearly surrounding Layton. But even as he answers their questions, he makes careful effort to turn toward the fourth side of the room. There the television cameras have dutifully lined up, the students made to be audience and backdrop. "I was telling him the other day, I can see it, that he's never been better," Lavigne enthuses. "He's never been more relaxed, he's never been more comfortable. It's the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of thinking, and we're getting closer, I think, to cracking that nut."

In this setting, eschewing a jacket and tie and working the room with a wireless microphone, he is equal parts motivational speaker, talk show host and steak knife salesman. He hits all his marks, talking about the kitchen table and beginning sentences with clauses like, "As prime minister I would ..." And he closes with a version of a line he is quite fond of - a pleading call to arms that is mocked for its earnestness at the back of the plane, but which is central, necessary even, to what Jack Layton is trying to do.

"Don't let people tell you that certain things can't be done," he says. "Because they can, if you work hard enough and you believe in it. And that's what the NDP's all about."


Early days

Layton was born on July 18, 1950, in Montreal. His family has deep political roots - both his father and grandfather were politicians, and his great-great uncle, William Steeves, was a Father of Confederation.

School days

Layton was president of the student council, and wrote in the yearbook that he'd be prime minister one day. After finishing high school, he and a friend headed to Alberta for a national youth parliament - where they cashed in their return tickets, hitchhiked to Vancouver and slept in Stanley Park before hitching back home.

Getting married

At 19, Layton married his high school sweetheart, Sally Halford. The couple, who had two children together, divorced after 14 years. Layton is now married to Toronto NDP MP Olivia Chow, who's close with his ex-wife.


According to his Facebook page, Layton likes watching The Simpsons and listening to the blues. His favourite movie is Star Wars.

Maclean's September 29, 2008

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