The NDP embarks on a new era

As Thomas Mulcair assumes the leadership, several key members of Jack Layton's team are moving on

[e-mail this page to a friend]

The Gazette, Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Here's the frame on the NDP convention. Tom Mulcair has never been known as a team player. Now we're going to find out whether he can become a good team leader.

The first test is whether Mulcair, always a polarizing figure, can become a unifying one. In other words, whether he can grow into the role, as well as the job.

That begins with reaching out to the other camps following the inherently bruising and divisive process of a leadership campaign. In the famous words of Winston Churchill, "In victory: magnanimity."

On the evidence to date, Mulcair's magnanimous side is a work in progress. His first two appointments were to return Libby Davies to her former role of deputy leader, while asking Anne McGrath to remain as the leader's chief of staff, a position to which she had been named by Jack Layton.

But other key members of the Layton team were soon headed for the exits. Two in particular, Brad Lavigne and Ray Guardia, will be a huge loss for the NDP.

Lavigne is a brilliant communications specialist whom Layton named as national campaign director for the 2011 election, with results that speak for themselves. While Layton was the horse, Lavigne was the jockey. He handed in his resignation as principal secretary to the Opposition leader weeks ago, and, effective Sunday, as the party's national director.

In Lavigne's case it's partly a matter of moving on, perhaps to Toronto, where he will be much in demand in communications consulting and government relations.

In Guardia's case, it's a matter of moving out. Twentyone years ago, Guardia was recruited as a youngster by an NDP strategist named Brian Topp to run the campaign of Phil Edmonston in a by-election on the South Shore of Montreal. The NDP grabbed the seat from the Tories, which would remain their only breakthrough in Quebec until the Outremont by-election of 2007. By then, Topp and Layton sent him in to run Outremont for Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal. Guardia reprised the role for Mulcair in the 2008 general election, and in 2011 Layton named Guardia Quebec campaign director.

After Layton's death, when it became clear that both Topp and Mulcair would become leading candidates for the leadership, Guardia knew he'd have to choose between them. He made a trip to Montreal to explain to Mulcair that he felt a higher loyalty to Topp. To say that Mulcair took it badly is to understate the case.

And so they're breaking up Layton's circle of close advisers, one of the best teams ever assembled in Canada. This group was so tight they could finish sentences for one another, let alone Layton. McGrath and Lavigne were the leaders, but former communications director Kathleen Monk and press secretary Karl Bélanger were also important players, as were campaign strategists like Topp and wise owls like Robin Sears.

Topp, who began the leadership campaign with a slew of endorsements from such party icons as Ed Broadbent and Roy Romanow, was clearly the choice of the party establishment. But while he knew a good retail game when he saw one, he couldn't quite get the hang of connecting with members himself.

In retrospect, the Topp campaign made a serious mistake when it decided to skip the opportunity to run in Layton's seat of Toronto-Danforth, a by-election where the NDP won last week with 60 per cent of the vote.

Had Topp run there, he would have had real momentum going into the convention four days later, and taken the charge that he wasn't in the House off the table.

The NDP have just lived through seven months under the leadership of a new MP, Nycole Turmel. And this gave Mulcair an effective closing argument on Saturday, that the NDP needed an experienced leader in the House. Several leading caucus members made the point by walking to Mulcair's section on the convention floor in Toronto. He led on all four ballots and won by 57-42 per cent, a clear and impressive victory.

But there were two major screw-ups. A breakdown of online voting resulted in a 12-hour day, something that raised the core attribute of competence in the sense that if a party can't run itself, it can't run the country.

And then there was Mulcair's victory speech, one of the worst ever heard. It's not as if the leader's office hadn't tried to help. They met with Mulcair and other front runners to offer advice based on research tested by focus groups. Mulcair wasn't interested and was evidently determined to present his own speech. He didn't even make it available for the huge teleprompter screen at the back of the hall.

The first thing a leader should learn is that he should be the last person writing the speech.

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard