Having been an NDP candidate under Jack Layton’s banner in the 2006 federal election and having acted as NDP strategist on Canada’s Parliamentary Affairs Channel (CPAC) at that time, I can attest to what it means to be inspired by Mr. Layton’s hope and optimism.
Tired of political approaches which ranged from angry to arrogant, my ears pricked up when I heard Jack take the podium with his “Ideas that work for Canadians.” He seemed the kind of guy you might like to have a beer with, without feeling your pockets might be picked, your trove of principles rummaged for usable political fodder.
His ideas on “sustainability within a generation” – an idea later bandied from one party to the next – seemed to me like a workable formula to get down to business and make Canada a global citizen, a leader in the world.
There was a vacuum of hope at that time, where shameful shenanigans had rushed in to fill the political glass to o’er-brimming with dubious undertakings. Battered by the sponsorship scandal, the Liberal party had kept Canada together by sordid means, I guess.
No, it was not the Liberal way forward which interested this budding politician; too unseemly and in significant part, the reason for my awakening.
It was this likable mustachioed guy who was updating the New Democratic Party mojo who got my attention. Jack Layton had taken the reins of the NDP, strongly endorsed by that “best prime minister we never had” Ed Broadbent – that veteran of my glory days of politics, the winger on my dream-team line, alongside Pierre Trudeau and Joe Clark.
Jack did indeed embody hope. Always positive, and in my experience, possessor of the only kind of spin that doesn’t turn the stomach: finding the good and positive in everyone and everything.
The only problem was… it turned out he didn’t know how to represent all Canadians. Sure, he was savvy enough to know how to work Quebec – a linchpin tactic before it was learned how to leverage Ontario 416 and 905 area codes – by appearing regularly on Sunday night French television’s Tout le monde en parle where the inauthentic need not apply, never mind raise the trademark glass of vino.
But, Jack’s NDP was, I came to learn, otherwise helmed by idealists not given to a balanced view of the totality of what it takes to make a nation function in a world economy, on a world scale.
These were the days before the NDP finally sloughed off their “socialist” moniker (however questionably), when the party organization was gripped by what I began to understand were in fact, impossibilists – in some combination of unwillingness and incapacity to find the middle- and common-ground to actually govern.
It couldn’t be about both business and workers. It couldn’t be about both wealth-builders and a social safety net. No, it was nationhood proposing to operate in a fantasy-land of all-labour-all-the-time.
Through the fall of 2005 and in the run-up to the federal election of 2006, I appeared with increasing regularity as both NDP candidate (for Ottawa-Orléans) as well as party strategist during leadership debates in English and in French.
Gradually, as I found my legs and came to know the platform – and its failings – I grew weary of the BlackBerry tether I was supplied to hit prescribed points during the broadcasts. Called upon, as an NDP partisan would, to ignore the contributions of our armed forces. Called upon, to attack only the Liberal counterpart, lest one demonize these new Conservatives, thereby driving support to the Liberals. Called upon, to address the nation on CPAC in both official languages but told to choose either an English or a French copy of the platform document! I grew weary of the platitudes, idiosyncrasies, and partial positions of the orange camp.
The day after the election, the votes being counted and my riding turned Conservative blue for only the second time in 100 years. What it means to represent the then-third party sank in with a vengeance.
Sure, it was well and very good indeed to have followed Jack Layton into electoral, though, of course, bloodless battle. And I was proud to lead a great local team to the NDP’s highest count in the riding ever. But to be part of the force bringing about the dark age of choked reason, to be part of the split progressive Canada silenced now seven years on and into a majority government with its fleet of omnibus bills at the ready to throw all those of dissenting opinion under – it was galling to have represented an approach which experience had just shown me was not suited to governing.
Having lived such a wounding experience, and grown tired of constantly self-policing my political understanding to align it with wrong-headed groupthink, I retired soon thereafter from partisan pursuits.
The ensuing years were marked with the aforementioned cowing of the progressives, the Liberal brand shattered into myriad pieces and warring camps, the rise of the NDP opposition in the Jack-won orange lottery, and I went back to work.
Then, in December of 2012, I attended Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership bid launch in December of 2012. Wow. For the first time in many years, I had heard a fresh, cogent and inspiring speech. I let Justin know this and offered my help to make his leadership bid come true. Many came out of the woodwork that day to let Justin know “I knew your dad,” “loved your dad,” or “I helped you into your snowsuit when you were a toddler” (this being Ottawa, after all).
For me, it was “Jack sent me” and “I’m trusting you to get us out through this.”
Through the Liberal leadership contest, I corralled some data for Justin’s team in my region, managed e-mail campaigns – and most notably in today’s who-owns-“hope” squabble, around the boardroom table, can now singularly attest that I witnessed the same positive and hopeful traits in Justin Trudeau as I did in Jack Layton.
Opportunities to lash out and invoke no-holds-barred politics were met with calm resolve, the higher ground always taken.
Am I of the mind that Justin Trudeau can single-handedly lead the nation out of its current morass?
Is he the all-skilled political messiah the progressives – never mind the slippery concept of the ‘left’ – seek to drive the blue horsemen of the apocalypse from the halls of power?
No one person is. But, I can tell you Justin is entitled to invoke Jack’s positive spirit, and I feel pretty sure Jack would cede the point.
That’s what the magnanimous do.
Mark Leahy was the NDP’s 2006 candidate in Ottawa-Orléans.