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The federal NDP was in ashes when Jack Layton assumed the leadership, Brian Topp argues. Mr. Layton aimed to return to the work of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent, successful predecessors with similar goals. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
The federal NDP was in ashes when Jack Layton assumed the leadership, Brian Topp argues. Mr. Layton aimed to return to the work of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent, successful predecessors with similar goals. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Brian Topp: The NDP after Layton: big gains, big challenges Add to ...

What to do about energy politics? This is another way of asking: How will the NDP defeat the Conservatives in their backyard and win in Western Canada? New Democrats staked out some important ground in the past six months by saying, with admirable clarity and determination in the full face of the Conservative anger machine, that energy development must be pursued in a manner that respects Canada’s environmental law and our global responsibility to address climate change.

So far, so good – provided that identical federal rules apply to all forms of energy production in every province across Canada. And provided the party can articulate an alternative that leaves Western Canadians feeling as hopeful and optimistic about their jobs and economic future as they do about the environment, which they take a backseat to no one in wishing to conserve. A vision of less intensive development at a much higher level of value-added is a good place to start. Thomas Mulcair is talking about this, and is wise to do so.

What to do about the national question? As I write Quebeckers are a few weeks away from voting in a provincial election. Whether or not Jean Charest wins a fourth term, the Quebec sovereignist movement isn’t going away and so the national question isn’t, either.

Just to make things a little more interesting, our Liberal friends believe this is the NDP’s Achilles heel: the gadget that they can manipulate to break up the emerging progressive majority behind the NDP, and to get themselves back into business as the default alternative to the current government.

There is much to say about this. I’ll offer two thoughts here.

First, it remains true that the Quebec National Assembly has not signed the current Canadian Constitution. That is a serious lacuna that will need to be addressed when we can be absolutely sure of success.

But, second, here is something interesting about that. PQ Leader Pauline Marois hasn’t raised the old stories about the constitution in the current Quebec election – because she knows people have far more immediate priorities on their minds.

Instead she has taken dead aim at the Harper government, arguing that Mr. Harper’s agenda and priorities prove that Canada needs to be broken up.

That is purest bunk.

But, perhaps, useful bunk. Because if it is true that the only problem with Canada is that it is governed by Stephen Harper, then the New Democrats can attack the latest of an infinite series of constructs from the PQ by doing its basic work as the Official Opposition – by defeating Mr. Harper, and by replacing him with a social democratic government in Ottawa that unites Quebeckers and other Canadians around a progressive agenda. As the Bloc Québécois learned in May, 2011, that’s an attractive offer.

Which gets us to a final point: what to do about the federal government’s crisis of relevance? Recent Liberal and Conservative governments have worked together on a common agenda to make Canada’s national government largely irrelevant to the daily lives of most Canadians. Today’s federal government is a Parliament, it is a public service, it is an army and police force, and it is a largely unconditional bank machine for provinces.

Small wonder that Canadians increasing tune federal politics out. Small wonder Parliament in recent times has been about embarrassing squabbles over trivia. What else was there to talk about? Here is the fundamental mission of the New Democrats: to demonstrate that the Liberal/Conservatives are wrong, and that there are indeed important projects and priorities that Canadians can and should work on together. Not symbolic issues, designed to get us angry and to divide us from each other. The real stuff: Equality. Jobs. Health care. Economic security. The environment. Reclaiming our good name in in the world.

New Democrats need to find a way to give Canadians hope that we are more than the sum of our parts, and that there is much we can do together to make a good country a much better one – carefully and prudently, one practical step at a time, without reigniting the old federal-provincial wars that separatists and conservatives build on, each in their own special way.

A tall order, all of this.

But these are all excellent challenges for the NDP to have as it carries on its work, in growing strength and confidence, as the mainstream alternative to Mr. Harper’s government.

Jack would have liked that, a lot.

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