Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Layton casts a long, adored shadow

Sentiment for Jack could hinder NDP's chance to govern

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OTTAWA -- Last August, it was easy to understand why Jack Layton's death hit Canada so hard.

In the span of one short election campaign, Layton went from an also-ran leader who few thought had any chance of leading his party to success to the head of a so-called Orange Revolution which turned politics in Canada on its collective ear.

Four months after that, he was suddenly gone.

The tragedy of someone being struck down just after he finally got to breathe down the corridor of power is more than even an after-school-special could contrive.

So the state funeral, the chalk drawings, the national group hug that ensued were all understandable.

Fast-forward a year and the anniversary of his death has been marked with as much, if not more, of the same emotions.

The question is: How much of this is legitimate and how much is political posturing?

Is it crass to build a political movement on the back of a man felled by cancer at the most inopportune time? Or is it crass to suggest that it is crass?

For the first time since Tommy Douglas, the NDP has a hero to worship and it works to the party's benefit, so it's no surprise the NDP is taking advantage of it. Rallying around the final cry of their fallen warrior will line pocketbooks, inspire voters and drive volunteers to the doorsteps.

At some point, however, it will also hinder the party's progress.

Layton was a great politician -- there is no doubt about it. That his hands were all over the NDP's unexpected breakthrough last year is indisputable, even though he cannot be credited for the entire thing.

But sainting his memory is actually not fair to him or his party.

Layton was a good man. He worked hard and he believed in what he was doing. He was friendly and accessible.

But he was no saint.

He was often criticized for being too slick and polished. Many described him as a used-car-salesman type of politician. He was great in front of a camera but not always as believable off it. That those traits are now being lauded rather than criticized says more about the pundits and public than about Layton.

The words he left us with -- love is better than anger, hope is better than fear, optimism is better than despair -- have become the catchphrase for his party.

But what do they actually mean?

The party might brand itself as the party of love and optimism, but the NDP must be more than that or it will not actually do what Jack Layton would likely have wanted -- to develop party policy and a platform to carry it into power.

You cannot fix the economy, eliminate poverty, address soaring personal debt levels, or improve access to clean water by spewing meaningless catchphrases, no matter how heartfelt they are. You cannot win government based on the memory of a single man, no matter how great he was.

It takes hard work and leadership and practical policies that can be turned into legislation.

As long as Layton's memory continues to be canonized and the tragedy of his death the focus, Thomas Mulcair will remain the deputy leader while Layton's memory holds the reigns of the top job.

With the exception of a short-lived television campaign last spring trying to introduce "Tom Mulcair" to the country and a much-publicized visit to the oilsands, Mulcair has been almost invisible. He came out of hiding last week when B.C. MP Denise Savoie announced she was stepping down for health reasons.

Beyond that, it would be fair to wonder what Mulcair is doing and when he will be willing or able to step out of Layton's shadow.

It is also fair to wonder when the party and even the media will let him do it. The party was more than willing to engage in an over-indulgence of memorials to Layton.

Yes, the first anniversary of his death deserved to be marked. But the memorials went on for days and the media lapped it up and added more to the fray.

Many reporter friends raised eyebrows at the constant coverage of the anniversary of Layton's death, fearing it plays right into the accusation the media are a bunch of left-wing sympathizers.

What Layton did for the NDP and in politics in Canada won't be forgotten, but unless the NDP and the media move on, the substance of what Layton spent the last decade of his life working for will eventually be lost.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2012 A7

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