Photo: Matt Jiggins/Flickr

Jack Layton set out to convert the federal New Democratic Party into a governing party.

More than this, Layton aimed to be prime minister, to elect a government and to steer Canada towards mainstream social democracy — a fairer, better, more equal Canada, one practical step at a time.

Layton aimed to modernize his party and its policies.

Layton aimed for a breakthrough in Quebec, the province of his birth — and for badly needed breakthroughs everywhere and anywhere else in Canada. The federal NDP was in ashes when he assumed the leadership. He aimed to return to the work of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent, successful predecessors with similar goals.

So how is that all working out, a year after his passing?

Jack’s last words were a call to maintain our hope and optimism.

And there is, possibly to the surprise of our opponents, much for New Democrats to be hopeful and optimistic about today. Jack would like that.

But our tribe also must wrestle with some interesting challenges — the kind of challenges the NDP has always wanted to have. Jack would like that, too.

Things to be hopeful and optimistic about:

First, our opponents hoped that the NDP’s remarkable progress under Layton would instantly evaporate without him. But I am in an excellent position to testify that the New Democrats found a formidable replacement in Thomas Mulcair. Mr. Mulcair is a former Quebec cabinet minister who looks more comfortable at the Calgary Stampede than our Albertan prime minister does. Somebody who can do that has got the chops to provide Mr. Harper with a serious run for his money — and his office.

Second, our opponents specifically hoped that the NDP’s remarkable breakthrough in the province of Quebec would evaporate without Jack Layton. There is no evidence of this. Most Quebeckers remain determined to rid Canada of its current government and (always mindful that there are no certainties or entitlements in politics) see their formidable delegation of Quebec New Democrat MPs as their best means to do so.

Third, the underlying gears and clockspins of Canadian politics, many of them provincial, continue to line up helpfully for the NDP across Canada. Canadians are not looking to Fabian-neoconservatives to solve their problems with health care, education and other public services by stealthily wrecking them. These days, as in Alberta, even when “conservatives” win, they lose. Canadians are looking for something else.

Some interesting challenges, in no particular order:

What to do with Parliament? Mr. Mulcair’s irrepressible House Leader, Nathan Cullen, has done Canada (and the teachers leading school groups into the galleries) a signal favour by working to drive infantilism out of the House of Commons. But it is also true, as the New Democrat Official Opposition well understands, that peace and quiet in Parliament will re-elect the government. Boring works, at least for this Prime Minister.

The people of Canada gave the NDP the tools to set the public agenda. Using those tools, the New Democrats need to win the next three sessions on issues that will frame victory in 2015.

What does that look like? In a perfect world, something like the pipeline debate that broke the back of the St-Laurent government. Or the defence debates that cracked the Diefenbaker cabinet and helped plunge Conservatives into a generation of civil war. Parliamentary moments like those are combinations of luck (or, in any event, the artfully seizing upon of mistakes), meticulous research and a determined and sustained exploitation of every rule in the parliamentary book — at a decibel level sufficient to cut through and to credibly demonstrate that it is time for a change in Ottawa.

What is the alternative being proposed? New Democrats can safely be clear about what they are not. Not dismantlers of medicare. Not builders of pipelines, designed to ship our raw resources and our jobs to waiting industrial economies overseas and to the south. Not warmongers. Not reckless deregulators. Not fiscally reckless friends of the rich. Not climate-change deniers. Is saying this enough?

As political strategy, it probably is. Wise oppositions make the government the issue and keep the focus on its failures. The imponderable is this: if you don’t also say, pretty clearly and at the appropriate time, what you’re going to do and how you’re going to pay for it, do you have a mandate even if you win? And if you surprise voters with changes you didn’t talk about once elected, will they re-elect you to a second term — usually the necessary pre-requisite to ensuring that change is here to stay? That is going to have to be considered carefully.

What to do about energy politics? This is another way of asking: How will the NDP defeat the Conservatives in their backyard and win in Western Canada? New Democrats staked out some important ground in the past six months by saying, with admirable clarity and determination in the full face of the Conservative anger machine, that energy development must be pursued in a manner that respects Canada’s environmental law and our global responsibility to address climate change.

So far, so good — provided that identical federal rules apply to all forms of energy production in every province across Canada. And provided the party can articulate an alternative that leaves Western Canadians feeling as hopeful and optimistic about their jobs and economic future as they do about the environment, which they take a backseat to no one in wishing to conserve. A vision of less intensive development at a much higher level of value-added is a good place to start. Thomas Mulcair is talking about this, and is wise to do so.

What to do about the national question? As I write, Quebeckers are a few weeks away from voting in a provincial election. Whether or not Jean Charest wins a fourth term, the Quebec sovereignist movement isn’t going away and so the national question isn’t, either.

Just to make things a little more interesting, our Liberal friends believe this is the NDP’s Achilles heel: the gadget that they can manipulate to break up the emerging progressive majority behind the NDP, and to get themselves back into business as the default alternative to the current government.

There is much to say about this. I’ll offer two thoughts here.

First, it remains true that the Quebec National Assembly has not signed the current Canadian Constitution. That is a serious lacuna that will need to be addressed when we can be absolutely sure of success.

But, second, here is something interesting about that. PQ Leader Pauline Marois hasn’t raised the old stories about the constitution in the current Quebec election — because she knows people have far more immediate priorities on their minds.

Instead she has taken dead aim at the Harper government, arguing that Mr. Harper’s agenda and priorities prove that Canada needs to be broken up.

That is purest bunk.

But, perhaps, useful bunk. Because if it is true that the only problem with Canada is that it is governed by Stephen Harper, then the New Democrats can attack the latest of an infinite series of constructs from the PQ by doing its basic work as the Official Opposition — by defeating Mr. Harper, and by replacing him with a social democratic government in Ottawa that unites Quebeckers and other Canadians around a progressive agenda. As the Bloc Québécois learned in May, 2011, that’s an attractive offer.

Which gets us to a final point: what to do about the federal government’s crisis of relevance? Recent Liberal and Conservative governments have worked together on a common agenda to make Canada’s national government largely irrelevant to the daily lives of most Canadians. Today’s federal government is a Parliament, it is a public service, it is an army and police force, and it is a largely unconditional bank machine for provinces.

Small wonder that Canadians increasing tune federal politics out. Small wonder Parliament in recent times has been about embarrassing squabbles over trivia. What else was there to talk about? Here is the fundamental mission of the New Democrats: to demonstrate that the Liberal/Conservatives are wrong, and that there are indeed important projects and priorities that Canadians can and should work on together. Not symbolic issues, designed to get us angry and to divide us from each other. The real stuff: Equality. Jobs. Health care. Economic security. The environment. Reclaiming our good name in the world.

New Democrats need to find a way to give Canadians hope that we are more than the sum of our parts, and that there is much we can do together to make a good country a much better one — carefully and prudently, one practical step at a time, without reigniting the old federal-provincial wars that separatists and conservatives build on, each in their own special way.

A tall order, all of this.

But these are all excellent challenges for the NDP to have as it carries on its work, in growing strength and confidence, as the mainstream alternative to Mr. Harper’s government.

Jack would have liked that, a lot.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Matt Jiggins/Flickr