When Jack Layton announced he was taking temporary leave to deal with a life-threatening illness, he was widely acknowledged to have done a fine job leading the NDP to Official Opposition status. But, the mainstream media consensus was that without Jack, the NDP would not be up to the task of filling the role of chief critic of the Conservatives.
The press featured negative comments about acting leader Nycole Turmel, a former National President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), who freely admitted she had big shoes to fill, before pointing out she had the full support of the NDP caucus to take on the role Layton himself had recommended she occupy.
Not giving the NDP a fair shake is normal media practice in Canada. Two reporters for the Globe and Mail on different days referred to Turmel as a “union boss,” a term of derision born in the 19th century, before unions became legal entities. A “boss” is someone with control over workers, a workplace supervisor. Union leaders are elected to serve their membership. Elected union leaders gain experience that can prove very valuable in politics, where leaders are called upon to consult the public, as well as voice national concerns.
The issues that matter to Canadians are jobs and incomes, access to public services, healthcare in particular, environmental protection, and availability of recreation and cultural facilities for family members. These are issues addressed by public sector unions every day. As a noted public sector union leader, Nycole Turmel is well placed to articulate the concerns of Canadians for the future, which is why her appointment was so widely supported by New Democrats. That she represents a Quebec riding, where the NDP now hold 59 of 75 seats, makes her nomination even more compelling.
In the coming six weeks the official opposition will be readying itself for the return of Parliament on Sept. 19. The NDP caucus convenes in Quebec City Sept. 13-14 to finalize its strategy for the new session. The job for the 103 member caucus is to raise issues in Parliament, and then make them resonate widely outside Parliament.
In the next six weeks, caucus members will be canvassing Canadians in order to draw up lists of party priorities for the fall. NDP members of Parliament will first want to know how much support there is for Conservative policies. How many Canadians feel spending billions on new fighter jets makes a lot of sense? What degree of support is there for sending giant tanker ships through the coastal waters of British Columbia? How do Canadians feel about retiring on public pensions that will leave many of them below the poverty line?
To the extent they are known, Conservative policies are not popular with Canadians. The problem is that the public does not have a good picture of what the Conservatives are up to. So the Official Opposition needs to publicize widely what the Conservatives are actually doing. How well the NDP is able to fulfill that task — without being able to count on media co-operation — will determine how well it serves the public interest.
The Conservatives are busy trying to undermine Turmel by talking about how PSAC supported Bloc members in past elections, and hoping their media friends will forget to point out that PSAC supported candidates who defended workers against Conservative candidates, who wanted to cut the public service, and kill public service jobs.
The other Conservative line of attack is to pretend that the Layton announcement has provoked a leadership race within the NDP caucus. In fact by offering Turmel as his choice for interim leader, Layton clearly signaled that leadership succession was not a factor in his recommendation, a point that has been well understood within, and outside the party.
In the coming months the NDP faces the same challenges as any other political party: recruit new supporters, bring supporters of other parties over to the NDP, and, especially, strengthen the links between NDP supporters and the party. Party organization on the ground needs to be done well to succeed. Talking about the issues in a way that catches the attention of Canadians is important.
In taking his medical leave, Jack Layton demonstrated the kind of leadership Canadians have grown to respect and appreciate. It will be hard to make anyone believe the NDP caucus have any intention of doing anything other than respect his intentions.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes weekly on politics and current affairs.