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NDP MP Charmaine Borg works in her riding office Monday, July 18, 2011 in Terrebonne, Que. Jack Layton's sick leave has left a big hole for NDP youngsters who have already experienced a a baptism by fire - but the party maintains its youth contingent is ready to fill the void. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP MP Charmaine Borg works in her riding office Monday, July 18, 2011 in Terrebonne, Que. Jack Layton's sick leave has left a big hole for NDP youngsters who have already experienced a a baptism by fire - but the party maintains its youth contingent is ready to fill the void. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Politics

NDP grapples with possibility that Jack Layton may not return before Parliament resumes Add to ...

Brave words from New Democrats about Jack Layton's imminent rebound from a new bout of cancer do not mask the fact that the NDP is facing one of the most challenging periods of its history.

Evidence that the party is fully cognizant of the obstacles ahead can be found in the tight, Conservative-esque control it exerted this week over information about Mr. Layton's health. Inexperienced MPs were far from the media as veteran members of caucus pronounced Nycole Turmel's turn in the Leader's office to be nothing more than a seven-week interim.

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But insiders and political observers are well aware that Ms. Turmel, a rookie MP who is the former head of Canada's biggest public-sector union, could remain the leader when Parliament returns from the summer break - and maybe much longer. Here are some of the top issues she faces in the weeks, and possibly months, ahead.

Parliament is coming back and there is a mountain of work to be done

Ever since the May 2 election, the NDP has scrambled to beef up the communications staff and the research capabilities that go with its new-found status as the Official Opposition.

"I think the biggest challenge right now is to have a smooth transition," said Anne McGrath, who was chief of staff to Mr. Layton and is now answering to a new boss.

Priority number one for Ms. Turmel is to hire staff for the Office of the Leader of the Opposition (OLO) and various parliamentary offices in Ottawa. At the same time, she must quickly absorb matters such as Canada's monetary policy, foreign affairs and interprovincial relations. And she must ensure that the crop of new MPs do their jobs on the Hill and in their ridings without stepping on landmines.

The party will have to maintain a stiff pace until the winter break, handling the lion's share of questions when the House comes back on Sept. 19, filling the second biggest contingent on committees and having to respond swiftly to the Conservative legislative agenda as well as the big political issues of the day.

All of which can be done without Mr. Layton's guidance, but staff had grown used to his jovial demeanour in times of stress. Ms. Turmel has a tough act to follow.

The two solitudes are not easily breached - even within a single party

Ms. Turmel's trickiest balancing act is related to the 59 NDP MPs in Quebec - including 58 rookies - who have taken over from the nearly obliterated Bloc Québécois as the province's main political force in Ottawa. While speaking for Quebec, Ms. Turmel will have to quickly learn about issues that are dear to her 44 other colleagues in the rest of Canada.

The crucial part of the equation is to act as a national party that represents the French-speaking province, without alienating voters in the nine other provinces. Ms. Turmel will have to strike a balance that Mr. Layton took years to perfect.

"For starters, she has to make sure that she is defending the values of the NDP, and not those of the Bloc Québécois," said Réjean Pelletier, a political science professor at Laval University.

The Conservatives will be gunning for the Opposition leader

Many New Democrats expect the Conservatives to try to exploit Mr. Layton's absence. The governing party has successfully exploited the urban-rural divide within the NDP in the past, on issues such as the long-gun registry, and it can be expected to look for further wedges.

"Stephen Harper's Conservatives can be really mean, and they are not going to stop because there is an interim leader," said Ian Capstick, a media consultant who worked for Mr. Layton in the past. "This is politics, and the NDP needs to hit hard while Jack is away. They can't hold their punches."

Kathy Brock, a professor of political science at Queen's University, said Ms. Turmel should try to continue in the tradition of Mr. Layton and deal with the issues pragmatically, not dogmatically. To do so, she must lose some instincts from her time as a labour leader if the government engages in spending cuts.

"The NDP will have to acknowledge that we are in a period in which cuts are necessary, while standing up for the vulnerable, for seniors and Canadians will illnesses," Prof. Brock said.

At some point, now or in the future, the party must wean itself off Jack Layton

Ms. Turmel will have to continuously remind everyone - her caucus, party supporters, rival politicians, and all Canadians - that the NDP is much bigger than Jack Layton.

The party has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and while it is now closer to power than ever, it is not a one-man band. It has history and grassroots members, and 102 other MPs in the House of Commons.

The NDP deliberately used Mr. Layton as its main selling point in the last election, to great success, especially in Quebec where most candidates were unknowns. However, for its long-term success, the NDP's orange brand has to be stronger than a single individual.

James Laxer, a York University professor who ran for the NDP leadership four decades ago - and who has often been critical of the way the party has been run - believes the success enjoyed in Quebec in the past election leaves the NDP on a solid footing. But getting the party to even contemplate moving ahead without the man who orchestrated its success will be impossible in the short term - and difficult even in the long term.

"The assumption I make - and this is the assumption I am going to stick with as long as I can - is that he's coming back," said Prof. Laxer, who taught Mr. Layton when the NDP Leader was a graduate student in the early 1970s. "So therefore I am not prepared to consider the world without Jack Layton in it."

Who can replace Mr. Layton if he does not return?

This is the most delicate challenge facing Ms. Turmel, because it will largely go unspoken. Some bristle at the mere mention of the possibility that Mr. Layton's health issues could prevent his eventual return. "It's too early," Mr. Capstick said.

However, other more dispassionate observers feel that Ms. Turmel must focus on Plan A - holding the fort until Mr. Layton's return - while quietly preparing Plan B. Prof. Brock of Queen's said Ms. Turmel will inspire confidence within the party by expressing optimism over Mr. Layton's recovery, but she still has to be ready for every eventuality.

"Any prudent person needs a backup plan," she said.

Tony Martin, who was a new Democrat MP for seven years until he was defeated in May, said there are others who are also up to the task. "We have a lot of really bright, energetic and some of them young people who have tremendous potential. Jack courted many of them and brought them into the party," he said.

But, like Mr. Capstick, Mr. Martin said this is not the time to be working on leadership campaigns. "I would be disappointed if that began to happen," he said, "because we all expect and think that Jack's coming back."

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