Jack Layton, story of the year

The late NDP leader brought Quebec closer into the Canadian fold, wounding the Bloc and the Parti Québécois as he did so

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It was the year of incumbents, when a Conservative government graduated to majority status in Ottawa, and sitting governments were re-elected in five provinces.

As Stephen Harper put it at every campaign stop last spring, the uncertain economic times called for a "strong, stable, national majority Conservative government."

This line helped Harper close the deal in Ontario, where the Conservatives ran the table with 73 seats, including 30 in the Greater Toronto Area.

In what was once Fortress Toronto for the Liberals, the party was reduced to only seven seats. Across Ontario - a province where they had won 100 seats only a decade ago - the Liberals won only 11. In the suburban 905 belt around Toronto, voters flocked to the Conservatives to avert the prospect of an opposition coalition in which, as Harper said in the closing days of the campaign, the New Democratic Party rather than the Liberals would be in the driver's seat. In Ontario, where voters still have bad memories of a provincial NDP government led by Bob Rae, that was the clinching argument for a majority.

The argument for a strong and stable government was so compelling that Ontario Premier and Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty stole the page from Harper's playbook in the Ontario election in October. Ten points down at the beginning of the campaign, McGuinty made the case that it was no time for change. Conservative leader Tim Hudak ran a tone-deaf campaign on tax cuts, when the only issue in Ontario was jobs. For her part, NDP leader Andrea Horwath had clearly learned the great lesson of Jack Layton's federal campaign: put a smile on your face and put out a positive message. It was her campaign that, in the end, reduced McGuinty to minority status.

While Harper, in his fourth campaign, finally reached the promised land of a majority, there's no question that Layton was the person of the year in Canadian politics.

That he's no longer with us is simply a poignant reminder of how much he achieved in the little time that was left to him in 2011.

While it was Layton who held the balance of power in the minority House of Commons, it was the Liberals who wore the blame in forcing an unwanted election by sponsoring a contempt-of-Parliament motion against the Conservatives.

While Layton kept up the pretence of negotiating on the budget, he privately told advisers for months that he wanted Michael Ignatieff as his opponent.

While there were concerns that Layton's prostate cancer might have metastasized into his hip, he gamely began the campaign with a crutch, and finished it with a spiffy black cane. By the end he was walking on air and didn't need the cane, but his team advised him to keep it because it had become the symbol of his campaign.

When the Orange Wave crested on election day, the result was 59 NDP seats in Quebec instead of one, and 103 seats overall, taking the NDP all the way from fourth place to official opposition.

In Quebec, it was entirely about Layton's gallant campaign. In essence, he borrowed Barack Obama's message of hope and change, and put a Quebec accent on it.

There were nights when he had four-and five-point surges in Quebec in the daily Nanos tracking poll: the night after his appearance on Tout le monde en parle; the nights following the leaders' debates, which he won in both languages; after Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe's disastrous April 17 speech to the Parti Québécois convention, in which he invoked the prospect of another referendum; Easter Weekend, when Layton drew an overflow crowd of 2,000 in Duceppe's own riding in an event that dominated the media frame on a weekend when Quebecers were deciding their votes around the family table; and finally Duceppe's campaigning six days before the vote with Jacques Parizeau, who personified all the bad memories of the 1995 referendum, the most divisive event in the modern history of Quebec.

You have to very good to be as lucky as Layton was in the election, and he was both: a man who seized the moment when it arrived.

That the NDP should be struggling in the House without him shouldn't come as a surprise. The New Democrats have lost their unifying figure, their rassembleur.

But that does not diminish Layton's achievement in taking down the Bloc, a party that was, for once, without its essential narrative of grievance; a party that got suddenly old; a party that, as it turned out, couldn't take a punch. Reduced to a rump of only four MPs, with no standing in Question Period, about to lose public financing, the Bloc will not be back in force anytime soon. The other aspect of Layton's legacy is the huge collateral hit the PQ took in Quebec, dropping from first to third place in the polls since May 2, its caucus split asunder, its leader trailing a retread named François Legault who claims to represent the future.

We have Jack to thank for that, too.

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