Monday, July 25, 2011

The NDP Needs Jack, But So Does Canada

Earlier today Official Opposition Leader Jack Layton announced that he is temporarily stepping aside to receive treatment for a second bout of cancer. Both the announcement and the appearance of Mr. Layton surprised many, as he appeared to be in fine form as recently as June when Parliament broke for its summer break.

The immediate reaction can be broken into two categories. The first was sympathy and concern for the well-being of someone who is respected in politics. Canadians, by and large, like Mr. Layton - his enthusiasm, positivity, and ability to be committed to his principles without being blinded by them.

The second category of reaction is more focused on the impact this could have on the NDP. As one commentator noted, he has become more than just the leader of the NDP - for many voters he is the NDP. While all parties thrive or falter based on the popularity of the leader to some degree, the story is more pronounced for the NDP.

The success of the NDP in May was largely driven, particularly in Quebec, by the appeal and popularity of Mr. Layton. And now he is temporarily stepping aside in what continues to be a very formative period for this new NDP.

For caucus members who should still be basking in the glow of their May breakthrough, the immediate future holds innumerable questions about Mr. Layton's health. Similarly, for a party which should be looking to the future with hope, there is a danger of becoming somewhat introspective. This is the challenge with having a leader-based narrative - they become the story.

But for me, the issue is broader than that. Mr. Layton is not just the leader of the NDP. He is the Leader of the Official Opposition and the principal critic of government.

His role tasks him with the responsibility of holding the government to account; with offering Canadians an alternative perspective on how their money is spent, their environment is protected, their security ensured and their country governed.

As we consider the challenges, opportunities and choices in front of us, we need strong voices to share all perspectives and alternatives. You don't have to agree with his politics to see that Mr. Layton offers such a voice.

So yes, the NDP needs Mr. Layton back and ready for action. But so does Canada.

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