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NDP Leader Jack Layton fields a question at a press conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton fields a question at a press conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

New Democrats - new faces, new clout Add to ...

Taking his party from political afterthought to Official Opposition took Jack Layton eight years. Now he's got four more to convince Canadians that the NDP is ready to govern.

When Parliament returns, Mr. Layton will exercise a very different type of political power from what he wielded over three consecutive minority Parliaments.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since his party's historic rise, the NDP Leader rejected suggestions that his larger caucus actually has less influence now that the Conservatives have a majority government.

Mr. Layton clearly had a knack for the brinkmanship dramatics of minority Parliaments, as repeated showdowns over budgets and other confidence votes forced Liberal and Conservative minority governments to adopt NDP proposals. But Mr. Layton says he campaigned on a new type of constructive politics in Ottawa and intends to take Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his word that he will work with other parties.

"We will try to convince Mr. Harper to do what he should do. And with the mandate we received, it's his obligation to listen to us," Mr. Layton said.

"An opposition party can do a lot of things, because a government works in the context of public opinion. And our party can express the attitude of the public, because they voted in large numbers for the NDP. So we have a context that is very different," he said.

A big part of Mr. Layton's new challenge will be to lead a 102-member caucus that includes 58 MPs from Quebec - 57 of whom are rookies. Among them are four McGill students and the youngest MP ever elected: Nineteen-year-old Pierre-Luc Dusseault from Sherbrooke.

The eager new MP said the NDP's mix of youth and experience is a good thing.

"I knew I could win," said Mr. Dusseault in an interview. "I entered because I was always hearing people who wanted change, people who wanted to send a young person into politics. That's what encouraged me to run."

Another student, 20-year-old Charmaine Borg, acknowledged she didn't expect to win, but said she and her fellow McGill colleagues are "ecstatic" that they did. The co-president of the McGill NDP spent most of the campaign helping Thomas Mulcair in Outremont and only shifted her attention to Terrebonne-Blainville - north of Montreal - late in the campaign when it appeared she might win.

"With all these young new and female candidates, especially, I think we can at least create some real opposition to the Conservative majority," she said in an interview. "I understand that because I'm young, people are going to immediately assume that I'm not fit to do the job, but I'm going to prove them wrong."

One candidate who is not talking to the media yet is Ruth Ellen Brosseau, an assistant manager at a Carleton University bar who didn't visit the Berthier-Maskinongé riding she won for most of the campaign and went on vacation to Las Vegas. The party acknowledges she will need to improve her French.

But Mr. Layton rebuffed questions about whether his team of Quebec MPs is ready for prime time.

"When people vote for change, that's exactly what they they're hoping will happen," he said. "They didn't want the same old House of Commons. They did want something new."

Mr. Layton said he has, for instance, met the four McGill students now headed to the Commons, though "in large groups, I have to say." But he argued that his party also has some very experienced MPs who will work with the rookies, noting that some of his Quebec MPs are accomplished individuals.

"It's a diverse group. We have a former member of Parliament, we have a former cabinet minister, we have a former deputy chief of the Cree of the James Bay nation, we have the first Innu lawyer from the community in the north of Quebec, we have an expert in international law, and yes, we have some young people," he said.

"But you know, young people got involved in this election in an unprecedented way. I think it was very exciting," he said. "And the fact that some of these young people have now been chosen by the members of their constituency to be their voice - I think we should see that as something to celebrate, not something to criticize."

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