NATIONAL

MY NAME IS JACK

Another Liberal minority in Election 2006 could turn Layton's spring budget deal into a template for a sustained NDP power play

JOHN GEDDES December 5 2005
NATIONAL

MY NAME IS JACK

Another Liberal minority in Election 2006 could turn Layton's spring budget deal into a template for a sustained NDP power play

JOHN GEDDES December 5 2005

With the minority Liberal government all but sure to fall this week, politicians—not to mention voters—are grimacing at the prospect of a campaign that runs through the holiday season. Who in their right mind would want to toil at politics and policy when they could be enjoying the Christmas break? Well, actually, Jack Layton has done it before, and apparently it’s a cherished memory. The NDP leader’s wife, Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow, gets positively sentimental remembering how they spent their first Christmas Eve as a couple, back in 1985, drafting a policy paper. She was a school-board trustee at the time, he was on city council, and they were collaborating on a nutrition program for schools. “It was about sharing,” Chow explains, and sounds like she’s only half joking when she adds: “It’s the best way to do Christmas.”

Eggnog and shortbread cookies are nice, too. But Layton and Chow not only mix business and pleasure, they seem to barely acknowledge the difference. Asked how they keep their professional and personal lives from getting tangled together, Chow says, “Why would we want to do that?” Seeing how politics defines even Layton’s home life makes the way he throws himself into it the rest of the time less surprising. Not since Brian Mulroney ruled Ottawa has a federal party leader appeared to be so continuously on. Like Mulroney, Layton keeps in close touch with an astonishingly wide range of political contacts. And Mulroney had only the phone—Layton also works his BlackBerry mercilessly.

He has shown, though, that he’s more than a relentless networker. Layton, 55, emerged as a skilful brokerage politician last April, and hasn’t let up since. When the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois were salivating over the chance to bring down Paul Martin’s minority in the wake of spring revelations from Justice John Gomery’s sponsorship inquiry, Layton cut a risky deal that saved the Liberals, and made his NDP a force in Ottawa in a way the party hadn’t been in decades. He traded support in the House for $4.6 billion in spending on NDP priorities, from affordable housing to mass transit.

Not bad for a guy who commands only the fourth party in the House, a mere 18 MPs out of 308. In the campaign set to begin this week, the question is whether he can persuade Canadians to give his NDP enough seats for him to gain a firmer grip on the balance of power in what is likely to be another minority House. If the election puts him in that potent position, then last spring’s one-off budget deal with the Liberals could turn into the template for a sustained NDP power play. The danger, for Layton, is a repeat of what happened to the NDP after it propped up Liberal minorities in the ’60s and early ’70s—a Liberal resurgence at the NDP’s expense, partly fuelled by the popularity of the very policies New Democrats pushed onto the agenda. That outcome would quickly turn Jack Layton from the architect of an NDP renaissance into a footnote beside the entries for Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough.

The Liberals are preoccupied with the Tories, but also seem aware that they can’t afford to keep feeding the emboldened rival on their left flank. When Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe were ready to gang up to defeat Martin’s government after Gomery’s November report, Layton tried once more to parlay the votes of his little group of MPs into more polices to hang in the NDP shop window. But this time, when he asked for significant steps to curb private health services, Martin’s counter-offer was so vague that it would have given the NDP little to brag about. The Liberals were clearly loath to hand Layton more campaign ammunition. So he walked away from the table. As one NDP insider explained, letting the Liberals survive well into 2006-long enough to deliver a budget that would eclipse the “NDP budget” from last spring—was only worth it if Layton could plausibly claim to have imposed his will on the key health care file. If he couldn’t keep running the country, in other words, we’d just have to have another election.

Those who know him well are not surprised Layton is playing the angles to leverage slim numbers into substantial clout. He’s been recognized as a natural politician since his high school days. He went on to be a campus activist, then to teach politics in universities, and practise it for two decades in Toronto. His mastery of municipal government may be the key to understanding his approach to Ottawa: city politics, without the strict party discipline that shapes most of what happens on Parliament Hill and in provincial legislatures, tends to be about shifting alliances, rather than inflexible partisanship. It’s an arena that favours deal-makers. And Layton—who has sometimes been accused of showing more interest in making a splash than a difference—is out to persuade voters that if they give him more MPs in this election, his NDP can keep on cutting deals that matter.

Layton honed his skills over 20 years at Toronto city hall, but his roots are in small-town Quebec. Bom in 1950 and raised in Hudson, near Montreal, his boyhood and youth seem defined by the clichés of two eras: an idyllic 1950s small-town nurturing, followed by an exhilarating 1960s campus-activist coming-of-age. Hudson was a cozy enclave when Layton was a boy. Bert Markgraf, his best friend from high school, recalls a lot of swimming and sailing on Lake of Two Mountains. Jack was on student council, Bert edited the yearbook. “We created our own activities,” says Markgraf. “We did some theatre, organized dances. We were on the debating team.”

Yet Jack wasn’t tagged as nerdy. “He was an all-round guy, a pretty fair athlete, particularly in individual sports like swimming,” says Larry Smith, the president of the Montreal Alouettes, who has been touted as a possible Tory leadership candidate and was president of Hudson High School’s student council in 1967-68, the year after Layton was. Smith says Layton, unlike a typical jock, “didn’t mind being seen as hanging around with guys with intellectual capabilities.”

After graduating from high school in 1967, Layton and Markgraf travelled to Alberta for a national youth parliament. They turned that Centennial excursion into a classic pan-Canadian road trip. Cashing in their return plane tickets, the two good kids from Hudson hitchhiked to Vancouver and slept in Stanley Park. They then thumbed their way back home across the country. “We were very earnest,” Markgraf says. “I remember we were out on the Prairies—I think in Manitoba near St. Boniface—and we looked for a cheap place to sleep and ended up in a shack behind a service station that the guy rented to us. We stayed up all night discussing all kinds of philosophical things, a lot of existentialist things—at least as far as we could at 17.”

They both went on to McGill, Layton as a political science student and Markgraf to study math and physics. The campus was roiling with sixties radicalism. “Jack took part in the political science department sit-in. We occupied the vice-chancellor’s office at one point. He was in there in a lot of this stuff,” says Markgraf. “He always had an easy way with people and he’s a natural leader in that sense.” Smith remembers that everyone always assumed Layton was destined for politics. But he also saw behind Layton’s easygoing confidence a certain volatility. “Jack had a correctness about him, but a rebellious side also,” he says. “You were always wondering when the wild shot is going to come from him. That hasn’t changed from his youth.”

He’s still capable of the occasional wild shot, but how spontaneous they are is a point of debate. Not even his closest friends deny that Layton is a calculating politician, who plays the media with tactical savvy. So when his passions do burst through, critics sometimes suspect him of pumping up emotions for effect. In last year’s campaign, he said deaths of homeless people rose after Paul Martin cut affordable housing when he was a deficit-fighting finance minister. The charge put Layton on the defensive for several days, during which he seemed at times visibly distraught over the uproar. Homelessness is one of his great causes—he has written a book on the problem. But was Layton’s attack and his reaction to the fallout entirely genuine or partly strategic? It’s hard to be sure about a politician whose private and public dimensions are, by his own wife’s description, barely separated.

There can be no doubt that Layton regards scoring media attention as a major part of his job description. Most politicians, and their followers, are coy about that aspect of the public life. Harper passes up no opportunity to tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s not much of a performer, joking about his own supposed dullness—often just before he rips into a well-honed stump speech peppered with one-liners. His core supporters are eager to describe him as a policy wonk at heart, rather than a partisan. So are Martin’s, talking up the Prime Minister’s proclivity for late-night policy debates—but rarely mentioning that those famously extended meetings are often as much about retail politics as real policy.

Layton’s friends and allies, however, tend to be as open in marvelling at his pure political ability as they are about admiring his ideas. Marilyn Churley, deputy leader of Ontario’s NDP and a Toronto candidate for the federal party in the coming campaign, credits Layton with mentoring her as she made the transition from community activist to professional politician. She praises him lavishly as a leader on issues from urban poverty to environmental policy. But asked about the most important things she learned from him, she turns to publicity tactics. “Every trick in the book about getting media I learned from Jack Layton,” Churley says. “People talk about Jack’s ego and stuff, but I remember his generosity about sharing the spotlight with me and teaching me the ropes. He taught me how to focus, how to grab media attention on issues, so you don’t bury an issue in too much detail. How to get the message out as succinctly as possible. When to be hot, when to be cold, when to use props, when not to use props. What’s the best time to hold press conferences.”

Layton knows his reputation for resorting to stunts to generate headlines and TV news clips puts him in danger of being seen as superficial. He once lay down on the Toronto pavement to have his outline drawn in chalk, to draw attention to AIDS deaths. He arranged to have 1,000 balloons drop from the ceiling—in hoary time-honoured party convention style—to celebrate the Federation of Canadian Municipalities hitting its target of signing up 1,000 cities and towns when he was heading up its membership drive. Early on as federal NDP leader, he set up a website, www.flyourflag.ca, devoted to publicizing how Paul Martin’s shipping company registered vessels in foreign countries to avoid Canadian taxation, and offering visitors a chance to vote for which flag Martin might fly from the Peace Tower (from options including Liberia and Panama).

Despite all that, Layton says he decided fully a decade ago to devote himself to finding ways to get things done, instead of just dreaming up novel ways of protesting the way things were. “The change happened in 1985,” he told Maclean’s in an interview last week. “I remember the day. It was a complete penny-drop moment. I was literally in the shower, and I thought, I don’t like being in opposition, I like being in proposition.” That’s his term for proposing reforms instead of just slamming the status quo. Before that watershed moment, Layton had spent three years as part of a left-tilting faction on Toronto city council that made a lot of noise but didn’t accomplish enough to satisfy him. He soon took over as chairman of the city’s board of health, and there, Layton argues, he hit his stride. “I know people tend to look at the media coverage,” he says, “but there was a lot of work that got done.” Layton boasts of introducing a landmark AIDS strategy, and a pioneering workplace smoking bylaw. “I was vilified for that,” he says. “But now it is everywhere—you just smoke outside.”

At about the same time, the mid-1980s, Layton and Chow emerged as Toronto’s preeminent left-wing power couple. They were married in 1988. Layton had previously been married to a Hudson girl, Sally Halford, and they had two children, Sarah and Mike. Chow describes herself as close to Layton’s ex-wife. It’s been a thoroughly modern family setup. A joint-custody arrangement for the children led to a tradition of Layton and Chow sleeping over at the home of Sally, who also remarried, most Christmas Eves, so the kids could open their presents Christmas morning with both families. Now adults, Mike and Sarah call Chow “O.C.,” and only in recent months finally moved out of the big Victorian house near Toronto’s Chinatown that she and Layton share with Chow’s mother.

Layton’s downtown Toronto home base is often mentioned as a liability as he tries to build NDP support across Canada. A Tory strategist, surveying the NDP prospects in Saskatchewan—where Layton was shut out last year but is targeting at least three seats this time—says the NDP leader is viewed in the province as a “latte-sipping socialist.” Hearing that characterization, Layton fires back, “You actually can get good lattes in Saskatoon, and Regina, too. Even Moose Jaw, where they have one of the fanciest spas you’d want to see.” (Chow deadpans: “He takes his coffee black.”) In fact, Layton doesn’t seem to mind being slotted as a big-city politician. “Canada is the most urbanized of the developed countries in the world,” he says. “We don’t think of ourselves that way, but we are a highly urbanized country, and our cities and towns need support. That’s the backbone of our economy.”

When it comes to winning seats, though, Layton needs his appeal to stretch well beyond urban hipsters. His most loyal constituency, including voters motivated by issues like global warming and urban poverty, is too narrow. As for the traditional NDP backing from big labour, Layton is close to some union leaders—but by no means all. Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Auto Workers and Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress both publicly criticized his manoeuvring on election timing, throwing their support behind Martin’s plea to be allowed to govern until the early spring. In an interview, Georgetti said he has a “rapport” with the Prime Minister, and finds him engaging, so they talk regularly. And Layton? “I run into him at airports,” Georgetti said.

Pressed for an assessment, Georgetti described Layton as “smart and presentable.” Not exactly a chorus of Solidarity Forever. One reason the NDP-union bond may been cooler than it once was is money: political party financing reforms introduced by Jean Chrétien in his last weeks as prime minister outlawed union donations (along with banning large corporate contributions). But there is also a cultural divide between Layton’s downtown sheen and the traditional industrial union leadership style. “Jack’s best at pitching to urban voters on urban issues,” says Greg Inwood, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. “He doesn’t come across as your working-class kind of guy.”

He isn’t one. In fact, his family background is not only white-collar, it’s Tory. Layton’s father ran a Montreal engineering firm, and later sat as a Conservative MP, chairing the Progressive Conservative caucus and finally serving as a junior minister in Mulroney’s cabinet. He died three years ago, after passing on political lessons to his social-democrat son. “He was very proud of the work that I did, and he expressed that very publicly, and to Brian Mulroney,” Layton says. “I have to credit my dad, who chaired a very large caucus for eight years. He and I talked a great deal and he taught me how to ensure the caucus worked as a team.” Any advice was sorely needed. When Layton won the NDP leadership in early 2003, he trounced his main rival, veteran Manitoba MP Bill Blaikie—the overwhelming favourite of the NDP caucus—on the first ballot. And against Blaikie’s bushy beard and corduroy jackets, Layton’s sleek suits and meticulously trimmed moustache can seem a lot harder to warm up to.

He needed to prove that the gamble on a slick outsider to the federal scene was worth it. Expectations going into last year’s election were high: the party had sunk close to irrelevance through the 1990s, and Layton was supposed to restore it to respectability. The result was not what he or the party had hoped. They boosted their seat total to 19 from 14, and nearly doubled the NDP share of the popular vote to 16 per cent from nine per cent in the 2000 election. But a sharp slide, particularly in Ontario, in the final few days before the vote erased bigger gains the party’s strategists had felt were within their grasp through most of the campaign.

Nik Nanos, president of the polling firm SES Research, says a lot of voters switched at the last minute in the polling booth to Liberal from NDP, out of fear of a Conservative victory. That same danger looms again—if left-of-centre voters see a Harper victory as a serious possibility. “The ideal situation for Jack Layton would be for a Liberal minority to be a certainty,” Nanos says. And that means Martin will probably close out the campaign appealing again to soft NDP supporters, warning that a win for the Liberals is not in the bag. Nanos says the NDP campaign team must devise a stretch-run plan for countering that expected Liberal bid for left-tilting votes in the final weekend of the race.

Conservatives are watching Layton, too. They are hoping he will, like them, campaign hardest against Liberals. But in a telling speech to New Democrats in October, Layton clearly signalled that he has also targeted specific Tory seats. “People in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Oshawa and beyond,” he said, “know Stephen Harper’s wrong on the issues, wrong for working families and that they can do better.” B.C., Saskatchewan and Oshawa? It’s not the standard coast-to-coast political speech rhetoric. Party insiders caught Layton’s allusion to ridings—Oshawa in Ontario, three seats in Saskatoon and Regina, and a handful in B.C.—that the Tories won by slim margins when votes the NDP thought were in the bag slipped to the Liberals. In all, the party lost a dozen ridings by fewer than 1,000 votes last year, and those seats are now Layton’s prime targets.

His message to voters is that casting a ballot for the NDP, so often dismissed in the past as a protest vote, has turned into a pragmatic choice. He laid out what are expected to be his main campaign themes in a speech in the House last Thursday on the no-confidence motion that will be voted on this Monday. Layton vowed to safeguard public health care from “creeping Americanization,” an issue on which he will compete with Martin for the status of protector of medicare. He promised to push for some version of proportional representation, a radical change in the way Canadians elect MPs that would guarantee small parties send bigger contingents to Parliament. And he touted a strategy to “build the green cars that Canada wants right here in Canada,” a thrust that blends old-style NDP industrial policy with his own concern about global warming.

But before he mentioned what he hopes to do after the election, Layton led off by boasting what he sees as his strongest selling point—that he “got results” in the spring budget deal. Get ready to hear about that “NDP budget” in every stump speech he delivers, in every NDP ad, at every chance he gets in the televised leaders’ debates.

It’s a highly unusual position for an opposition leader entering a campaign: Layton is running on his record. Yet it might be his knack for courting media attention—not the concrete budget measures he now has under his belt—that ends up mattering most. In what’s shaping up as a nasty, negative-ad-fuelled struggle between the Liberals and Conservatives, the NDP’s biggest worry is getting muscled off the main stage. Already in last week’s clash between Martin and Harper over the Tory leader’s charge that the sponsorship affair linked Liberals to organized crime, Layton was on the sidelines. He’ll need all his wiles to claim a share of the spotlight over the next few weeks. While delivering substance made the NDP matter again, a bit of showmanship might be called for to keep the party in the game. And Layton’s not above that. One thing NDP campaign strategists need not worry about is that he’ll demand much downtime in this unseasonable campaign. He’s pulled the Christmas Eve shift before.