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NDP the 'true alternative' to Tories, not interested in merger: Layton

Jack Layton, NDP leader and now officially the leader of the opposition, speaks to the media at a press conference in Toronto on Tuesday, May 3, 2011.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Jack Layton says he's not interested in discussing the prospect of a merger between the NDP and the Liberals, contending the election result shows his party is now the "true alternative" to the Conservatives.

In an interview broadcast on TVA's Larocque Lapierre on Sunday, Mr. Layton said he's not having any conversations around the notion the two parties will need to join forces to defeat the Conservatives.

Moreover, Mr. Layton said, the Liberals do not represent a genuine contrast to the Conservatives because the party helped Mr. Harper's minority government stay afloat for more than two years and supported the extension of the mission in Afghanistan.

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"I think we demonstrated that it is the NDP that is the true alternative now," Mr. Layton told political commentators Paul Larocque and Jean Lapierre. "And we will continue to work hard to show that it is us."

Asked about the potential for a formal alliance, given the fact former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent had discussed the idea, Mr. Layton said: "We have too much work to do to stop Mr. Harper from doing certain things that he would like to do."

Mr. Layton's comments came as the Liberal caucus prepares to meet on Wednesday, possibly to choose an interim leader to guide the bloc when Parliament returns, which could come later this month.

The party's national executive is expected this week to clarify the rules on the timing of the next leadership convention, which could affect who runs in the race to replace departing leader Michael Ignatieff.

Reached by telephone Sunday, senior Liberal MP Bob Rae was non-committal about whether he will seek the leadership for a third time or if he hopes to be named interim leader, saying he doesn't think anyone can campaign until it's clear how the process of choosing a more permanent leader would shake out.

"I think everybody needs to be clear about what the party's view is in terms of the timing of a convention, and other aspects of what's involved, and I think that has to be cleared up before anybody would make a decision as to whether they would take on the responsibility,'' Mr. Rae said. "The caucus is coming together really well. There's lots to be done, and I think we know what we have to do. We're going to be a very effective team in the House, and I get a sense from the party that there's an enormous desire to rebuild.''

Mr. Layton's suggestion that the NDP is now the only real progressive alternative didn't impress Mr. Rae.

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"When a party has just come off what they perceive to be an election win, a certain amount of hubris is almost inevitable," he said. "I think the focus of the Liberal Party is going to be on our own efforts to rebuild. That's got to be our focus, and everything else is just speculation, so I think we should just stick to our knitting.''

Mr. Layton spent Sunday making the rounds of the talk-show circuit in Quebec, underscoring not just the party's unprecedented showing in the province last Monday, but also its challenge in keeping a caucus of inexperienced first-time MPs on message.

Mr. Layton fielded questions about controversial new Quebec MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who speaks only passable French and has never been to the riding she will be representing in the House of Commons, at one point saying he thought she would be holding a public event on Monday, either in her riding of Berthier-Maskinonge or in Ottawa.

Party officials later clarified that Ms. Brosseau, a single mother and former assistant manager at a pub on Carleton University's campus who raised eyebrows by vacationing in Las Vegas during the thick of the election campaign, would speak to reporters and her constituents "soon," just not on Monday.

Appearing on the hugely popular Sunday night talk show Tout le Monde en Parle, Mr. Layton pledged to defend Quebec's interests, saying the NDP's success in the province represents a golden opportunity as well as an important responsibility. He said 75 per cent of his first post-election teleconference with his caucus was conducted in French, a reflection of the wave that has transformed his party.

Ms. Brosseau could not be reached on Sunday, and the party refused to make her available, even after she gave an interview to a local newspaper in her riding over the weekend. Her voice-mail greeting at her residence in Gatineau, just outside Ottawa, referred all media calls to the party's Quebec spokesman.

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Mr. Layton defended Ms. Brosseau, saying she won by some 6,000 votes and promising that constituents would be very satisfied with her level of commitment after a few months on the job.

Ms. Brosseau told Trois-Rivieres' Le Nouvelliste that she was shocked to have won and confirmed she had never been to the riding, but she said she is excited about the opportunity to serve in Parliament.

"I will make sure voices of regular families like ours are heard loud and clear in the House of Commons," she told the paper, according to Canadian Press.

When asked about comments by 19-year-old MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault, who last week appeared to tell a Quebec radio station that separation from the rest of Canada was inevitable, Mr. Layton rejected the suggestion that some of his MPs may not be fully committed to federalism, arguing that they chose to run for a federalist party whose "policies are clear."

Further illustrating the NDP's new starring role in Canadian politics, while Mr. Layton was reaching out to the Quebec voters responsible for sending more than half of his new caucus to Ottawa, deputy leader Thomas Mulcair was being interviewed on CTV's Question Period.

He was asked about the long-standing impression that there is some tension between himself and Mr. Layton, and how they might manage it, given the central role Mr. Mulcair will play in guiding the bulk of NDP members from Quebec.

Mr. Mulcair rejected the notion, arguing that while he and Mr. Layton share a strong philosophical connection, he was persuaded to join the NDP over an amicable dinner the two men shared with their wives in Mr. Layton's old hometown of Hudson, Que.

"Our personal and political relationship couldn't be stronger, and there's not the slightest difference between us," Mr. Mulcair said. "I don't know why you would say that."

Still, the questions being thrown at both men are just another indication of the heightened scrutiny the party will face now that the NDP is the official opposition, soon to be auditioning for the part of sole alternative to the Conservatives on a long-term basis.

With files from The Canadian Press

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