The Back Page

IF YOU DON’T KNOW JACK...

Yes* Jack Layton is a media hog-but his ideas are still worth hearing

PAUL WELLS May 3 2004
The Back Page

IF YOU DON’T KNOW JACK...

Yes* Jack Layton is a media hog-but his ideas are still worth hearing

PAUL WELLS May 3 2004

IF YOU DON’T KNOW JACK...

The Back Page

Yes* Jack Layton is a media hog-but his ideas are still worth hearing

PAUL WELLS

THERE MUST be an election in the air. Everybody’s playing Definition.

Most Canadians, no fools, pay little attention to political leaders between elections. Then we wonder who these guys yelling at one another are. Knowing this, leaders spend a lot of time defining one another, usually in unflattering ways.

Paul Martin has already set to work defining Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader. (Martin arrives perilously late to the task, having spent his first few months in the big chair defining Jean Chrétien.)

Harper is busy defining Martin.

But Jack Layton has set out to define himself. It’s novel, anyway.

Over the next few days, the nation’s bookshops should be receiving copies of Speaking Out: Ideas that Work for Canadians. Layton, the newish New Democrat leader, is the author. He’s also the subject. The subtext, of course, is the looming election campaign. Polls show the NDP hovering at about twice the level of support it won in the 2000 federal election, which was disastrous for that party. New Democrats would like their numbers to be higher still. And with Martin and Harper getting most of the daily press, Layton has decided to try his luck between hard covers.

Authorship isn’t new to Layton, who wrote a book on homelessness while he was a Toronto city councillor. But it’s unusual in Canadian politics. Politicians in France write books all the time. Even in the United States, campaign books have lately become de rigueur, even if it’s worth your life to wade through one of them (did anyone read the Bill Clinton classic, Between Hope and History? Me neither).

But you can see why Layton is eager to give long-form self-promotion a shot. His almost carnal attraction to the nearest camera or boom microphone has earned him a reputation in some circles for superficiality. He’s the kind of guy Quebec reporters call a “kid Kodak”-but in some ways that’s unfair. He’s the only national party leader with a Ph.D. (from York University). He’s about as fluent in French as Paul Martin. He held a bunch of important titles at Toronto council, a larger government than some provinces’.

But he’s No. 3 among national leaders, so he has to try harder. Where Stephen Harper’s pre-writ self-definition extends to pronouncing his name with eerie care in TV ads (“MY name—is—Ste-phen... HAR-per”), Layton pours on the pages.

His general theme is in the purest tradition of Canadian social democracy: if government isn’t doing something, it’s not getting done. “Power has been slipping away from Canadians,” he writes. “Have you noticed? ... For at least ten years, we’ve been told we cannot build anymore because we have no financial capacity to do so.”

Why? Because government has been serving “corporate interests”—a term Layton uses a lot—instead of ordinary people.

This is a book-length argument for bigger government, a notion that’s been in bad odour in the nation’s papers for a while. Layton affects surprise that “not one politician who is caught up in this corporate drift says, ‘We should privatize or do more with less’ when it’s about the military. Why, then, do these same people say we should privatize and cut health care, education, or environmental protection?”

I’m tempted to answer that it’s because we’ve already been doing less with less with the military for most of Layton’s life. But at least then we’d have an argument. It’s harder to argue with, say, Paul Martin, who will soon be coming to your door in person to tell you that whatever’s on your mind is a crucial national priority.

Layton’s book is full of detail, sometimes numbingly so. (Actual quote: “... job creation in the field of the enhancement of watercourses, wetlands, moraines, and threatened aquamarine environments. What an exciting prospect.”) It’s also full of intimate anecdotes. Layton says his son’s asthma helped Layton learn about failures in environmental protection and health care.

His solutions to these problems and so many more are sprinkled at intervals through the narrative. This isn’t a campaign platform; that’ll come later. But you can tell where he’s headed: a national school-meal program, a “well-funded international program” to clean up the Great Lakes, programs to keep jobs in Canada, inspired by “the excellent work of Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians.” I could go on. Layton sure does. The novelty is that everything he suggests has already been shown to “work,” as he sees it, somewhere in the world.

Very few people who have never voted NDP will be swayed by Layton’s book. But that’s not what he’s up to. Harper and Martin are trying to broaden their coalitions with vague promises. Layton wants to excite the NDP base with detail. If nothing else, he’s zigging where the others zag. Ríl

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