Layton's big challenge: managing his caucus

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jack Layton has problems - the ones that go with success.

As he meets his new 103-member New Democratic Party caucus on Parliament Hill again on Wednesday morning, he's coming to terms with the reality that it's nearly three times the size of his former deputation of 36 MPs.

And that his 59 Quebec members, up by 58 since the election, comprise nearly 60 per cent of the NDP caucus in a party that's never previously had more than one MP from Quebec.

And that five of them are from McGill University, students who stood for office as "poteaux" with no expectation of winning, and find themselves as MPs making $157,000 a year, not to mention expenses, housing allowances and unlimited free Via 1 travel back and forth to Montreal. Graduation, let alone graduate school, will have to wait.

The McGill Five, or the McGill Caucus, is the same size as the Conservative deputation from Quebec. Maybe they can play pickup hockey games of four on four, the Redmen vs. Les Bleus.

The New Democrats, as their luck would have it, are the official Opposition. (Things could be worse: They could have won the election, or been the coalition leaders overthrowing the Conservatives in a minority House.)

This means that for the next four years, the NDP caucus will meet on Wednesday mornings in the storied Railway Committee Room, while the Tories meet across the Hall of Honour in the Reading Room. As for the Liberals, they're out of the building for at least four years.

The problems of success, indeed.

It gets better for Layton. Having been tucked away for seven years into a modest sixth-floor suite in the Centre Block, he'll now be occupying the Opposition Leader's Office on the fourth floor, directly over the Prime Minister's Centre Block office on the third. It's one of Ottawa's better-kept secrets that the OLO is the most impressive suite of offices in the building. It is bigger than the PM's office, and much more elegant.

Layton and his wife, Olivia Chow, will be living in public housing again, though it's a far cry from space they were once accused by the Toronto Star of occupying when they were both city councillors in Toronto.

Now they're both MPs, and while she gets to Stornoway on his dime, she gets to tell the Official Residences folks about the drapes. Stornoway is actually a much more gracious house than 24 Sussex Drive; it's situated in the real neighbourhood of Rockcliffe rather than behind a fence across from Rideau Hall, and is not in need of the $10 million in renovations recommended by the auditor-general for the PM's residence, where the heating doesn't work in winter and the air conditioning breaks down in summer.

Layton can surely endure these hardships. His substantive problems of success will be integrating his new Quebec members with 44 MPs from English-speaking Canada, who have, for decades, been marching to Jerusalem. Then he needs to lower expectations in Quebec, where their 58 new members have never before sat in Parliament.

There hasn't been such a situation since Quebec elected 58 Tory MPs, up from one, in the Mulroney landslide of 1984. But that, at least, was a regionally proportionate share of MPs in a 211-member Tory caucus in what was then a 282-seat House.

As it happens, Layton's father, Bob, his hero, was caucus chair for Brian Mulroney, and was a master of that game. Layton surely knows that caucus management is his biggest single challenge. He opened a bit of a Pandora's box in suggesting provisions of Quebec's language law might apply in federally regulated jurisdictions like banking, or saying he would reopen the constitution to obtain Quebec's signature under winning conditions.

Fortunately for him, he didn't win the election, and his health permitting, he gets four years to position the NDP as a government in waiting, more like the ones that have balanced budgets in Saskatchewan and Manitoba than the one that left Ontario nearly insolvent in the 1990s.

But if the New Democrats are to be taken seriously, it's time for them to behave like grown-ups, and lighten up on the sanctimonious grandstanding of front-benchers like Tom Mulcair and Pat Martin. There's no future for freshman MPs in taking Roundheads as role models. It ended badly for Thomas Cromwell.

Speaking of rookie members, much has been made of Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who declined to break off her prepaid Vegas vacation to campaign in Berthier-Maskinongé, which, as she cheerfully admitted before finally visiting, "seems like a nice place."

But at another level, Brosseau, who's now 27, had a son when was 17, which means she grew up when she was 17. She's not a welfare mom, she doesn't collect EI, and she's supported herself as a single mom by working an honest job as a bar manager. Give the woman a break.

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