Troy Media – By Markham Hislop
Canada lost an honourable politician yesterday. Jack Layton succumbed to cancer in the early hours, surrounded by family and friends. I interviewed Layton several times during the recent election and was impressed.
Not every political leader makes time for the independent media. Stephen Harper barely spoke to the Parliamentary gang during the campaign and little guys like me had to make do with press flaks. Ditto for the Liberals and Michael Ignatieff.
But not Layton.
His first stop of the campaign was in Surrey, where he addressed a packed hall of placard-waving supporters. The press conference took place at the Sheraton Guildford Hotel. The place was a madhouse, as one would expect for the kick off to a national election campaign.
Relishing the upcoming political battle
I was standing next to our videographer as she waited to shoot Layton’s entry. We could hear the buzz pick up, indicating he was near. Then the inevitable handlers appeared, with the NDP leader in their midst, hobbling on his cane, the consequence of a recent hip surgery.
Layton was much smaller in person (my guess was 5’7″). But even in ill health his reputation as a fitness buff was obvious. For a 60-year old man he was trim and vigorous, and obviously relished the battle he was about to engage.
After the various candidates and party functionaries warmed up the crowd, Layton stepped up to the platform. I don’t recall his speech being particularly memorable, mostly the usual talking points he had laid out in weeks prior, but I was struck by his oratory style, or lack of it. Frankly, the speech was not a barn burner, as they say out in Saskatchewan, where Roy Romanow, a man who knew all the speechifying tricks in the book, used to regularly whip the NDP faithful into a frenzy with his tales of Conservative perfidy under the despised leadership of Grant Devine.
I caught a better glimpse of Layton’s political powers during the press conference following the event. The early controversy was Harper’s accusation that the NDP, Libs and Bloc Quebecois would form a coalition government. Layton pointed out in an interview with me that the Conservatives were already in a “de facto coalition” with the Bloc because they relied on their support to pass legislation, including several budgets.
But the real meat of the dispute was a letter from 2004 to the Governor General and signed by the leaders of all three opposition parties suggesting that there was an alternative should the Paul Martin-led Liberals no longer be able to govern. Both Layton and Gilles Duceppe said Harper discussed a coalition government as a viable option. Harper vehemently denied it.
Duceppe threw a minor hissy fit in front of the media and called the Prime Minister a liar: strong language outside the cozy confines, and protected speech, of the House of Commons.
I interviewed Layton three times about the coalition issue. The last time I asked him straight out if Harper had ever uttered the word “coalition” during their meetings.
You can understand the temptation for Layton to reply in the affirmative. The third party to their confabs was disputing Harper’s version of the discussions. A simple “yes, he did say it” would have drawn clear battle lines and possibly started a media frenzy that might have wounded the Conservatives early in the campaign. With the Liberals running a weak second in the opinion polls at the time, and BQ collapse in Quebec ahead of him, who knows what might have been for Layton and the NDP.
Sticking to his version of the truth
But the former Toronto City Councillor refused to be tempted, sticking to his version of the truth: while Harper might not have actually said the C-word, his intention was clear that he would form a coalition with the NDP and BQ if given the opportunity.
It wasn’t the stuff of controversy and the media moved on. Layton rarely discussed the issue again, even though Harper dragged it out at every opportunity.
Layton looks like a genius in hindsight. The last minute death spiral of Duceppe and the utter flop of the Liberals propelled the NDP to 103 seats and installed Layton and wife, and NDP MP, Olivia Chow in Stornoway.
Jack Layton was taken from us at a time when Canada desperately needs honourable political leaders who put principle before advantage. His courage, compassion and integrity will be missed, and Canadians can only hope the NDP find a worthy successor to lead them.
Markham Hislop is publisher of the Calgary Beacon and the Surrey Beacon.