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Canada’s Leadership Void in the Parliamentary Opposition

September 14, 2011

by Huguette Young

With the tragic death last month of Jack Layton, Canada’s charismatic leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper now holds all the cards in the House of Commons.

Harper is now dealing with three weakened parties in the House of Commons, which will begin its fall session on Monday, September 19. The prime minister is leading his first-ever majority government since taking power in 2006. The NDP is the official opposition in the House of Commons, but the party finds its voice waning after Layton died at age 61 after a short battle with cancer. The Liberal Party of Canada is now down to 34 seats after losing more than half its seats in the May 2 election referendum. With a mere four seats, the separatist Bloc québécois party, which only runs candidates in the province of Québec, has been effectively wiped out.

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All three opposition parties are looking to hold a leadership convention in 2012—leaving Harper a lot of room to maneuver. Up until the May election campaign, the Bloc québécois, the Liberal Party and the NDP made life difficult for Harper’s minority government. Now, with a comfortable majority, he can easily push through his “tough-on-crime agenda” as well as the Conservative Party’s economic policies and deficit-fighting plan. Now all three parties are vulnerable.

Layton’s temporary, hand-picked successor, the 68-year-old Nycole Turmel is the first to admit that it will be difficult to fill Layton’s “big shoes.”

Layton made a historic breakthrough in Québec in May, collecting 59 of the province’s 75 seats and guided the NDP through its best national showing ever—winning 103 of the 308 seats in the Commons.

Born in Hudson, Québec, Layton had a special connection with Quebecers even though he was a Member of Parliament (MP) for Toronto. Polls showed he was the federal leader that Québec voters most wanted to have a beer with.

Layton vowed to “fix Ottawa,” promising a more inclusive style of politics that would listen to Québec’s needs. His popular brand of politics struck a chord with Quebecers. He spoke passionately about hiring new doctors, beefing up pensions, capping interest rates on credit cards, and protecting Canada’s Medicare system.

If at first it slowed him down, his hip operation didn’t stop him from campaigning. His cane became a symbol of determination and hope. Around 13,000 Canadians paid their respects to the NDP leader as his body lied in repose in House of Commons foyer. Thousands more showed up to pay their respects at Toronto’s City Hall. Harper offered Layton’s family an elegant state funeral in Toronto, a ceremony usually reserved for governor generals and former prime ministers.

Turmel, who is not running for the NDP leadership job, does not have the same appeal. She is an inexperienced first-time MP, and a former leader of Canada’s largest public-sector union.  On her first week on the job, she had to defend herself from accusations that she was a separatist in disguise. After all, Turmel was a card-carrying member of the Bloc québécois for over four years. She only cancelled her membership in January when she had to declare her candidacy for the NDP. And she was also a member of Québec solidaire, a left-leaning, pro-sovereignty party in Québec, right up until it became public in July.

The Liberal Party of Canada, a center-left party, is also rudderless. Squeezed by the NDP on the left and the Conservatives on the right, the Liberals are undergoing an identity crisis. A few Liberal MPs now see their party as the de facto official opposition with the absence of Layton.

As for the once-powerful Bloc québécois, it is now irrelevant on the national scale. Harper could not have asked for a better political landscape. Still, he said he expects vigorous debate in the House of Commons and showed a willingness to compromise.

“While the government ultimately has the votes to pass its measures, the fact of the matter is the opposition has plenty of tools to delay passage of government measures,” Harper said during his annual trip to the Arctic in August. “So we either have to in some cases make compromises or pick our priorities, decide what is the most important thing to get through in a certain time frame or not.”

As he campaigned in the lead-up to the May vote, Harper signaled he wanted to move quickly to implement his anti-crime agenda, trim down government expenses and eliminate the federal deficit by 2014—one year earlier than predicted.

It remains to be seen whether he can move as quickly as planned. But for now, at least, the predicament of his political adversaries has bought him time and breathing room.

Huguette Young
is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.

Tags: Canada, Stephen Harper, Jack Layton

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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