Who will lead the federal NDP?

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Sun Media, Friday, September 2, 2011

To the question of whether Jack Layton was entitled to a state funeral, the answer was obviously no. To the question of whether he deserved one, the answer from Canadians was a resounding yes.

Normally, state funerals are reserved for governors-general and prime ministers. A state funeral for a leader of the opposition was unprecedented — unless you count Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1919, but then he had served 15 years as prime minister.

This was Stephen Harper’s call and it looks very good on him. It showed generosity of spirit. It also demonstrated that Harper has developed a sense of the prime minister’s role in bringing Canadians together as distinct from his job of running the country.

At some level Harper understood that Layton, in his gallant campaign last spring and his final illness this summer, connected with Canadians.

Last month they honoured Layton the man, not the leader of the NDP. They stood in line at his laying in state at the House of Commons and Toronto City Hall, the two places where his career played out on the municipal and national stage. They came by the thousands to line the route of the final journey to his funeral at Roy Thompson Hall.

Along the way, a few things got out of hand. Did we really need the CN Tower and Niagara Falls lit up in NDP orange? And Stephen Lewis spoiled an otherwise elegant and touching eulogy by interpreting Layton’s lovely letter to Canadians as “a manifesto for social democracy.” As such, a state occasion was briefly transformed into a political rally, in the presence of the Conservative prime minister, who made the event possible, and the Governor-General, who symbolizes the neutrality of the crown.

Now, as the NDP moves on, the first decision of its national council this week will be setting the date for a leadership convention. In this, the party must decide whether to honour Layton’s wish for an early convention next January, or to choose a longer horizon of next spring.

A short campaign would benefit the emerging choice of the party establishment, party president Brian Topp, the only prospective candidate with a truly national resume.

Like Layton, he’s a fluently bilingual English-speaking Quebecer. He knows the west from his days on the staff of former premier Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan. As the president of ACTRA, he’s got the unions covered. He’s worked his entire life in the NDP, and was Layton’s choice to become party president in June.

That he’s unknown to voters is beside the point, he’s known to the only ones who count in a party leadership race, its members.

It’s one thing to be an adviser and quite another to be the leader, but we’re about to find out if Topp has the retail skills to go along with his impressive background.

A short campaign would not be helpful to Tom Mulcair, who was formerly a Quebec caucus of one, and is now one of 59. That would suit Layton’s inner circle just fine — they’ve never regarded Mulcair as a team player.

Other prospective candidates, from British Columbia’s Peter Julian to Ottawa’s Paul Dewer, would be steeply challenged to grow beyond their narrow regional bases.

As for Olivia Chow, she bore a burden of sorrow with incredible grace. But this is not Argentina, and she is not Evita.

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