"The cruel confluence of Mr. Layton's conditions at the age of 61 - the pinnacle of political success, the resumption of his battle with cancer - infuses his situation with poignancy. Everyone who admires Mr. Layton must pray for his recovery," columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote in Wednesday's column about the NDP's Jack Layton. "But given the nature of things, some thoughts will turn, at least within the party, to what might happen if he can't recover."
Mr. Simpson toook reader questions about what Mr. Layton's absence means to the party he led to Official Opposition status. A partial, edited transcript follows, or click below to read the discussion as it took place.
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Moderator: Mr. Layton's political opponents have said the right things in public about his illness this week. But behind closed doors, what political calculations are being made about the New Democrats' situation and whoever is chosen as interim leader?
Jeffrey Simpson: The federal NDP caucus just gathered in Ottawa today to select an interim leader, so they will not have had time to do much talking together. They had not been alerted to the situation concerning Mr. Layton's health. I suspect -- but this is speculation -- that the MPs and others would find it indecent even privately to begin any discussions about a post-Layton era. Moreover, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Conservatives' writ has another four years go run. Little that happens in the near future will have much bearing on the state of the NDP politically four years from now. Obviously, there will be complete support for the interim leader who, coming from Quebec, illustrates I think the shift in geographical weight in the party and the essential prerequisite of a national leader, including from the NDP, to be bilingual.
Margaret Grech: Do you believe that Jack Layton was compelled to nominate an MP from Quebec, rather than a more experienced MP with parliament experience, such as Libby Davies?
Edward: I think the bigger question is to what extent are NDP fortunes tied to Mr. Layton and how will they fare if he is unable to return by the fall. Does this not leave Bob Rae as the de facto Leader of the Opposition?
Jeffrey Simpson: Libby Davies, to the best of my knowledge (and I could be wrong) either speaks no French or very little. It would not do -- it will not do -- for a party the majority of whose members come from Quebec not to have a fluently bilingual leader. Ms. Davies is also from the very left side of the party, which is not where the party needs to position itself if it hopes to build on success.
Bob Rae will be the best performer in the Commons, for what that counts. But, look, the Liberals are shocked still. They are a shriveled party, a long way from coming back as a serious second party. I would only say that if Mr. Layton cannot return to public life, and if Mr. Rae is as good as his word and will not seek the Liberal leadership permanently, then the NDP and Liberals will both have new leaders by the time of the next election. Who those leaders might be is beyond me to know at this stage.
Danny Boy: What can be read from the tea leaves about the way Mr. Layton chose to exit? Is his health dire, or is he merely being private?
Jeffrey Simpson: Both - his health appears to be dire, and he wanted to retain a certain privacy around his illness, which in my opinion he was entirely proper to demand. He is not the president of the United States, for goodness sake, whose annual health record is made public.
Charles: Would it be an improvement to the Canadian political system if leaders stated upfront in an election campaign who the "acting leader" would be in a situation such as this, so that the public would know who they might be getting? If something similar to this happened to Harper, would he be able to nominate an unknown junior cabinet member to take over in the interim?
Jeffrey Simpson: That's not necessary. We don't have a vice-presidential system. And, yes, Harper could recommend anyone he wanted. If the recommendation was foolish, it could be rejected by caucus. The nomination of Nycole Turmel was not foolish. She was a tough union negotiator who knows the public limelight. And, as I said before, what happens in the next six months will not be determinate in an election four years from now.
Moderator: Jeffrey, what do you think the recent federal election have looked like had Mr. Layton left the stage before it was held, instead of after?
Jeffrey Simpson: Let's just say that the party would never have done remotely as well in Quebec without him, and since the Quebec surge helped the party elsewhere a little, the overall result would have been much worse. We live in a leader-dominated age, and leaders count. The astonishing, or at least interesting, aspect of the Orange Wave, at least for me, was that the NDP platform was more or less old hat (and badly costed), Mr. Layton was the same kind of political actor he had always been, and yet the results were so spectacularly better, especially in Quebec. Same leader, same script, wildly better result. As a wag once said, "timing is everything." But what the tide brought in, it could easily take out, because the NDP was not much rooted in Quebec. Mr. Layton's task, among others, was to try to root this victory in Quebec.