Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Profile

Layton stakes his biggest bet as Jack of Hearts Add to ...

“I just think that the complexity of running a national government eludes him,” says former Liberal MP Dennis Mills, who lost his Toronto seat to Mr. Layton in 2004. Mr. Mills cites the occasion that year when Mr. Layton directly blamed former prime minister Paul Martin for the deaths of homeless people in Toronto.

“He shoots from the hip a little too quickly. It's a style he learned on Toronto city council, where he was the master … of getting the media's attention. When you've never had the responsibility of governing, that's something you can afford to get away with.”

But maybe he's changed. In the weeks after the election, Mr. Layton mostly stayed out of the public eye. As one who intends to propose rather than oppose, he has been busy assembling the shadow cabinet announced this week and working on plans to improve the welfare of seniors, to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, to alter rules about the use of French in Quebec workplaces, to argue that Mr. Harper's stacked Senate is thwarting the democratic will and to rethink Canada's Afghanistan mission.

“With the death of Osama bin Laden, there's a real change in the dynamics of Afghanistan,” he says, in full debate mode, “and I believe the Canadian people were hoodwinked by Stephen Harper's collaboration with Mr. Ignatieff on the extension of the mission.”

When he started expressing such doubts in 2006, his enemies delighted in damning him as Taliban Jack. Now military officials openly discuss engaging with the insurgency. “That's the classic role of the Opposition,” he says – to “put forward a proposition about a different way of doing things. Sometimes it takes a while for public opinion and the other political parties to come round to it.”

That's the activist side of Mr. Layton, glorying in taking heat: On the left, such attacks are a validation, a sign that you haven't given in and gone too Liberal. But there is political method there too: The policy clearly resonated with anti-war Quebec.

Equally far-sighted is Mr. Layton's commitment to change behaviour in the House of Commons “from its present mud-wrestling match and childishness into something more adult.” NDP MPs who make the mistake of heckling get an intimidating glare from their leader and a subsequent talking-to from the party whip. “I think Canadians just began to find what's going on in the Commons quite repulsive.” It's a low-risk, high-reward plan that doesn't require Mr. Harper's consent to succeed.

It's telling that Mr. Layton was once renowned for his showy displays at Toronto council. “He used to be a crawl-across-the-desk kind of guy, pounding his fist, that sort of thing,” Pat Martin says. “But you can't sustain that kind of choleric: You look like a fool and it eats you up inside. He's learned his lesson.”

The move is also strategic – a polite, civil NDP repositions Mr. Layton's reformism as moderate Cana- dian values, almost duplicating the Conservative mainstreaming of Mr. Harper before him.

Others still think Mr. Layton's style has its limits. This, after all, is the same man who pushed for Toronto to become a nuclear-weapons-free zone – a success that speaks for his skill, but perhaps not his sense of proportion.

Ontario Liberal MPP Mike Colle teamed up with Mr. Layton on transport issues on Toronto council; their sons often co-operate as municipal politicians today. While he praises Mr. Layton's capacity for work (“his office was like a perpetual political-action machine on every issue conceivable”), Mr. Colle says that his was “a brand of social populism that doesn't want explanations.”

For example, Mr. Layton's small-is-beautiful fixation on cycling undercut Mr. Colle's own mass-transit schemes: “You could never argue with the cycling people. … And yet the reality was that unless you build road infrastructure and transit systems, all the work on bike lanes doesn't make the city more mobile at all.”

Mr. Layton's cycling faction prevailed, but arguably with long-term consequences – the eventual election to mayor of right-wing Rob Ford, harping on a “war against the car.”

Risk-taking and responsibility

Still, bike lanes aren't a federal issue. Perhaps the more crucial lesson is that the two-wheeled campaign beat long odds.

“You get a sense of what a determined, creative risk-taker Jack was,” says Myer Siemiatycki, who has taught politics at Ryerson since Mr. Layton's days. “His platforms were never those an ambitious careerist would have chosen. There are much safer routes to stardom.”

That's why Mr. Layton appeals to NDP colleagues who refuse to accept that a high-minded belief system is a losing proposition. “He's put the elements in play for a victory,” says Pat Martin, who initially opposed Mr. Layton's Toronto-centric urbanity when he was chosen as leader in 2003. “Jack is the master of a personalized management style, which is a rare skill set on the left. … He's slowly but surely rebuilt the NDP from a dysfunctional group of activists, without losing sight of our founding principles, and that's why people trust us now. People know we've evolved into a modern social-democratic party.”

Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobePolitics

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories