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Layton vows ‘constructive’ opposition to Conservatives

Source: The Globe and Mail

Written by: Campbell Clark

Jack Layton rode a burst of popularity into a stunning second-place election finish that shook the structure of Canadian politics, completing a five-week surge that saw him rise from also-ran to Leader of the Official Opposition.

Just months after a bout with cancer and recovering from a broken hip, he delivered a smiling message for change that galvanized Canadian voters on the left and centre, an orange wave that did not break on election day. He is set to face a Conservative majority across the House of Commons.

“Spring is here my friends and a new chapter begins,” Mr. Layton told a cheering crowd Monday night. He reiterated his message that he would try to make parliament work.

“I’ve always favoured proposition over opposition,” he said. “But we will oppose the government when it’s off track.

“I will propose constructive solutions focused on helping Canadians.”

Mr. Layton returns to Ottawa as the man who stole Quebec from the Bloc and who claimed much of the centre of Canadian politics from the once-dominant Liberals. He faces the task of transforming the New Democrats into a government-in-waiting.

“Tonight Canadians voted to improve health care – public health care,” he said, outlining his platform promises to seniors and families.

“My friends, these are my commitments to you and I will work every day to earn the trust that you have put in me and my team.”

The New Democrats won 96 seats and are leading in 6 ridings with 18 so far undecided. The party held 36 seats when parliament was dissolved.

The Conservatives have won 160 seats and are leading in 6 ridings for a projected 166 seats, eleven more than the 155 needed to form a majority and 23 more than they started the election with.

In an historic defeat, the Liberals have won only 31 ridings and are leading in 4. They held 77 seats before the election. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lost his Etobicoke-Lakeshore seat to Tory leader Bernard Trottier. In a speech to supporters Monday night he accepted responsibility for the Liberals’ poor performance but said he would not step down unless the party told him to.

“Democracy teaches hard lessons,” he said. “Leaders have to be big enough also to accept their historic responsibility for historic defeat and I do so.”

In Atlantic Canada, NDP candidates dislodged Liberals used to fending off Tories in ridings in St. John’s and Dartmouth for a total of 6 seats in the region.

Quebec has delivered a huge boost to the New Democrats, mostly at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois. NDP candidate Hélène Laverdière unseated Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe who announced Monday night that he would step down.

The NDP has secured 56 seats in the province and is leading in 2 ridings. The party only had one Montreal riding, held by NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair, at the outset of the election.

“The NDP listened and understood your deep desire to do things differently in Ottawa, (to) put workers and their families at the forefront,” Mr. Mulcair told an ebullient crowd Monday night.

The NDP also gained support in Ontario, where they’ve won 21 seats and are leading in 1 riding compared to the 17 the party held previously. The party also cracked Liberal strongholds in Toronto. Jack Layton kept his Toronto-Danforth seat and his wife, MP Olivia Chow held onto her seat in Trinity-Spadina.

“I am so proud to be a democrat,” she said Monday night. “And of course, I am also so proud of our leader, Jack Layton.”

But the so-called ‘orange wave’ did not make it to the prairies where the NDP lost a seat in Manitoba and was shut out of Saskatchewan again. NDP MP Linda Duncan did hold onto Edmonton-Strathcona but the NDP did not make any gains in Alberta.

The NDP is gaining in British Columbia. The party has won 9 seats and is leading in 3 ridings. It previously held nine seats. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May won her seat in the province.

Now Mr. Layton has to immediately pull together a team filled with first-time MPs to ensure his party’s performance as opposition entrenches the gain, and that it casts them in a new role: no longer as advocates in Parliament, but as the party preparing to govern next.

“The New Democrats have never had to transition to anything ever before,” said Ian Capstick, a former NDP spokesman.

Mr. Layton must make the transition to the opposition with a host of new MPs who will face a new scrutiny: the host rookies includes some who are not just green but accidental MPs – they had run as mere standard-bearers in riding, especially in Quebec, the NDP never expected to win.

And the orange wave that he rode to the official opposition relied more on providing a hopeful message to contrast Canadians’ frustrations with Ottawa than it did on policy specifics, though he hit hard on basic themes like improving income-supports for seniors, recruiting more family doctors and cutting small-business taxes.

The NDP platform, and estimates of its costs, threatened to trip up his momentum at times: he was accused of underestimating the costs of recruiting 1,200 family doctors, and was forced to concede that that the billions of dollars in revenues in the party that were to come from a carbon cap-and-trade system might now arrive for years.

Mr. Capstick said he expects Mr. Layton, who studied up on agriculture when he moved from municipal politics to the NDP leadership, is likely to try to recruit policy advisers, perhaps from among former senior civil servants – notably to improve the party’s credibility on fiscal issues – to bolster a staff team that has till now revolved around political strategists and communications advisers. The new MPs will be given quick warnings to cool their jets before they pronounce on the party’s direction, Mr. Capstick said, with the message: “Just wait.”

And after the success of his campaign, predicated on a pledge to bring constructive politics to Ottawa, he will face pressure to dodge the rough attack politics that the leader facing the Prime Minister is typically thrust into. His experience in Toronto’s city council, where he learned retail politics and understood that putting forward an offer rings with voters, is likely to lead him to attack with policy proposals that he can cast as a better alternative, Mr. Capstick said. “He’s going to put all the ducks in a row, and then he’s going to start proposing things that Mr. Harper has to shut down.”

Mr. Layton had been stung in his first election, in 2004, when he doubled the party vote but was squeezed out of big seat gains by the Liberals, Mr. Layton built a strategy to fend off the squeeze: focusing on winnable seats, building organization and networks, and working on Quebec. This time, he was the one squeezing the Liberals and the Bloc.

But Mr. Layton, who defied typecasting before, will also be moving to corral his newly-swelled party into the centrist, populist brand he sees as its future – one that can continue to push the Liberals out in the centre of the political spectrum.

Though he won the NDP’s leadership as an outsider in 2003 – with a reputation as a bicycle-riding left-wing municipal politician and the support of just two of the party’s more left-leaning MPs – he dropped the party’s opposition to things like NATO and insisted it take a more centrist policy on fiscal issues, learning from the success of party legend Tommy Douglas’s provincial NDP governments.

“He’s learned the pragmatism of the Douglases and the Romanows and the Doers, and believes that’s the path forward for the federal party,” Ottawa New Democrat MP Paul Dewar said before the results came in. “He’s learned you have to take positions, but you don’t need to be too ideological about it.”

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