Find an in-depth interview with Jack Layton, the leader of the federal New Democratic Party, on leadership and the NDP in minority government.
Greg Farries (MLW): You were first elected to the House of Commons in 2004. Most Canadians, however, know very little about the day-to-day life of a parliamentarian. Over the last three years, what are some of the important things you have learnt about being a Member of Parliament?
Jack Layton: I’ll stress two. First, life’s pace can be gruelling for an MP, especially on the road, and you need to take care of yourself. It’s too easy to slide into forgetting about diet, exercise, and all that goes into keeping your body healthy, your mind sharp and your work effective. I recommend literally scheduling exercise and self-care time with staff, and keeping those appointments like any other. I also cycle to work whenever I possibly can – that really helps keep me grounded.
Second, you really need to stay connected with people outside of federal politics. Parliament Hill can be like a closed system, with its own language, customs, priorities, and cast of characters. To stay inspired with fresh energy and ideas, I always urge MPs to look beyond the experts who roam the Hill. For me, the best practical wisdom still often comes from ordinary people I encounter in Toronto and on the road.
Greg Farries (MLW): A leader of a major political party in Canada is faced with numerous challenges, both within their party and from without. As leader of the NDP, what do you believe are some key qualities of good leadership?
Jack Layton: Good leaders blend pragmatism and principle without sacrificing either. They set a clear direction, lead by example and hold themselves accountable for results. For me, the mechanism of that leadership is team building. After all, that’s the very idea of social democracy: citizens coming together, as a team with a vision, to get things done. That holds whether you’re leading a caucus or a country.
I continually re-learn three lessons about team-based leadership. First, it requires a great deal of active listening, constantly testing the team’s direction against a breadth of ideas and experiences. Second, you need to balance listening with a relentless commitment to action, continually re-earning trust that process drives results. Finally, leadership itself is a team project—the best part of my job is supporting exceptional leaders at work within our caucus, our party and in the wider community.
Greg Farries (MLW): Some might argue that western social democratic parties have gone through a significant evolution since the 1980s. As leader of the largest social democratic party in Canada, do you see a change in the policies and behaviour of left-wing parties? If so, what sorts of changes?
Jack Layton: Well, one clear change is the growing strength of those large corporate interests most threatened by social democracy. They’re consolidating control over cultural and political resources. Their think-tanks have excelled at framing regressive policies in compelling moral terms. Their political parties are feeling freer to slide further right.
All of this has some progressives wondering if they must shift to “the centre” to stay competitive. While I reject that idea, I won’t pass sweeping judgement on so-called Third Way governments. Governing is a difficult local balancing of principles and pragmatics. In practice, many of these Third Wayers have been much better for ordinary people than available alternatives. Others have clearly left their principles behind.
I can tell you that Canada’s NDP is proudly and firmly grounded in the principles of social democracy. This party knows what it stands for. You will see no movement towards a mushy middle ground. The NDP already reflects the mainstream on most of the issues people use to describe what Canada stands for. Our challenge is to continue articulating those policies in terms of their underlying values—fairness, safety, compassion, community—values that most Canadians share.
Greg Farries (MLW): Some would argue during the late 1990s, the right-of-centre in Canada found electoral success difficult, due in part to vote splitting between two political parties. Do you think left-of-centre parties are now facing a similar battle, with voters divided amongst the NDP, the Liberals, and the Greens?
Jack Layton: There is one principled left-of-centre party in Parliament: the NDP. Only the Liberals try to frame NDP-Liberal vote-switching as a battle of left-of-centre parties. What they do is beg progressives to hold their noses and vote Liberal to “Stop Harper”—even when switching votes to a third-place Liberal helps elect a Conservative. This campaign is based on fear as opposed to any honest competition of ideas.
There is a progressive tradition within the Liberal Party that I respect. But it has withered to a point where it is consistently buried, and good people along with it. And today, the Liberal MPs people elected to “Stop Harper” won’t even oppose Harper’s agenda when it matters most in Parliament. What the NDP offers is a principled, credible alternative to that agenda.
Greg Farries (MLW): The Liberals and Conservatives have traditionally been viewed as the key parties in the debate on Canadian federalism. What is the NDP’s view of the state of Canadian federalism today? Moreover, how would you differentiate your Party’s views from those of the Liberals and the Conservatives?
Jack Layton: We strongly support Canadian federalism, but the federation is not working well. Starting in the mid-1990s, Ottawa walked away from its responsibilities for national programs in housing, health and income security—and from supporting provincial priorities in post-secondary education and infrastructure. The results are painfully clear: a fiscal crunch for provinces, crumbling public infrastructure, falling service standards and hardship for ordinary Canadians.
Now we have a Conservative government that antagonizes provinces by breaking promises on equalization and threatening divisive debates on spending powers.
Instead of divisive debates, the NDP proposes results-oriented leadership. That means ensuring reliable federal funding of shared-cost programs so provinces, territories and local governments can plan without fearing abrupt policy changes. It means taking the reins where those levels of government have invited it—including national strategies for prescription drugs, child care, transportation and infrastructure. It means developing a framework for national standards in areas of provincial jurisdiction that respects Quebec’s autonomy. It means restoring fairness to equalization—in our view, through a rules-based system designed to equalize basic services for Canadians.
Greg Farries (MLW): In 2005, the NDP was able to advance part of its agenda during the Liberal minority. Do you see any issues where there is potential for cooperation between the NDP and the Conservative government? Or do you believe the Conservatives are still fundamentally "wrong on the issues" as you expressed during the 2005-2006 election campaign?
Jack Layton: The Prime Minister has repeatedly rejected our proposals on the big issues. On the mission in Afghanistan. On confronting global warming. On closing the growing gap between the rich and the rest. And with his Throne Speech taking Canada further down the wrong path, I am not hopeful of finding major areas of cooperation with Mr. Harper.
That kind of cooperation is rarely easy, whether it’s Conservatives or Liberals in charge. Bringing in Medicare or public pensions was not easy. Rewriting the 2005 Liberal budget was no easy partnership either. Remember, that was a difficult exercise that started with overcoming Paul Martin’s initial deal with Stephen Harper to bring in massive corporate tax cuts.
Greg Farries (MLW): As leader of a party that is officially supportive of initiating a discussion on electoral reform nationally, do you see the issue as having much life in the national political arena, after the defeat of the Mixed Member Proportional electoral reform in the Ontario election?
Jack Layton: That election provided the shallowest kind of endorsement for the status quo. Because the most alarming result of all is that barely half of eligible voters even cast a ballot. That’s an all-time low. Such is the level of cynicism among average voters. And our antiquated first-past-the-post voting systems breed more of it.
Someone, somewhere, needs to break this vicious cycle. I want to see it happen federally. People deserve a voting system that makes every vote count, that re-engages them in the political process. But the “right” moment for voting reform won’t appear like a sunny day in February. It will be the result of hard work and tough debates, and the sooner we move forward, the better.
Greg Farries (MLW): The NDP victory in the Quebec by-election caught many by surprise. Obviously, having a strong and credible candidate helped the party there. Can we read more into this victory than that? How does the NDP plan to expand on this toehold in a province that has been pretty unresponsive to the NDP up until now?
Jack Layton: Thomas Mulcair ran on an explicitly progressive platform: action on the environment, a new direction in Afghanistan, and fairness for average families. Pundits would do well to hear the message that Outremont voters sent before theorizing it away.
Thomas Mulcair’s credibility is a tremendous value. Absolutely. His is the credibility of a former cabinet minister and federalist social democrat. That’s important. He can speak directly to Quebec’s healthy and tenacious social democratic tradition. With the Bloc Québécois well past its best-before date, Tom offered Outremont voters a choice that’s both progressive and federalist—and they responded.
In the next election, you will see more household names running for the NDP. Thomas Mulcair’s trailblazing has helped make that possible. And these candidates will be creating more four-way races throughout Québec. When you get involved in four-way races, you start to elect MPs. And when you do that, you’re on your way to building a new tradition of electoral success.
Forum Member Questions:
Members of the re:politics (formerly, Maple Leaf Web) Forums where given the opportunity to propose questions to Mr Layton. The following questions where selected out of the 30+ submitted.
jennie (Forum Member): The Ontario provincial NDP has made commitments to honour the ‘duty toconsult’ with Indigenous communities about land uses on their traditional and treaty lands, and to pursue revenue sharing agreements. (Source) Will the federal NDP also commit to supporting meaningful consultation with Indigenous Peoples regarding all uses of their traditional and treaty lands, and respecting their interests in those lands?
Jack Layton: The NDP believes that a restoration of the nation-to-nation relationship that existed when the Crown signed treaties with First Nations is long overdue. Restoring this relationship means a full seat at the table for First Nations leadership on federal government issues that affect First Nations’ jurisdiction and the recognition of First Nations’ languages and history as a cornerstone of this country. Clearly, restoring this relationship ensure that meaningful consultation with First Nations will occur every time the use of their traditional and treaty lands is in question.
But this question is not only an issue of party policy; it is also the position of the Supreme Court of Canada. In the Haida and Taku Tlinglit cases, the Court made it clear that the federal government must consult with First Nations before making resource development decisions that affect their lands and that the government cannot assign this responsibility to anyone else. It’s time that our government lived up to their responsibility – legal and moral – and gave First Nations a real voice.
August1991 (Forum Member): Mr. Layton, you changed the long-standing, official NDP policy to withdraw Canada from NATO. Instead, you now want Canada to remain a member of NATO but you want to "transform" it. What do you mean exactly and is this related to your desire to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan?
Jack Layton: Since the war in Afghanistan began nearly six years ago, there has been little sign that NATO is willing to acknowledge its failings or change its approach in Afghanistan. NATO has been facing increasing problems in Afghanistan, including rising civilian casualties.
NATO needs to realize that if they continue to follow the narrow-minded agenda of the Bush administration on this issue, then they will simply fuel the cycle of violence in Afghanistan
Canada has been involved in the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar since 2005 when the Liberal government deployed troops to the southern province. With Liberal support, the current Conservative government extended the mission to 2009.
This mission is not making life safer for ordinary Afghans and it’s not improving the humanitarian situation in that country. Canadian soldiers serve courageously in Afghanistan, but when Canadian funds are disproportionately skewed towards military spending we cannot win the hearts and minds of local Afghans.
The mission is wrong and it doesn’t work. That’s why the NDP has consistently called for our troops to be withdrawn from the counter-insurgency mission and for a refocus of our efforts on aid and reconstruction.
geoffrey (Forum Member): Both the Conservative and Liberal parties have strong youth movements with many up and coming leaders. The NDP has recently seen some of its veteran members, ones’ that carry a great deal of respect in both the House and among Canadians, retire from politics. Are you confident that your party has enough youth involvement to have the same national presence 10 or 20 years down the road?
Jack Layton: It’s always sad when those who have spent years building the NDP and working on behalf of ordinary Canadians decide that it’s time to move on to other things. But they never stray far and they leave a legacy of hard work and accomplishments for the rest of the team to build on. They also leave in the knowledge that there are many others waiting in the wings, ready to take on that work.
One of our great strengths is the youth presence within our party. I am constantly impressed by the young people who are involved. I am inspired by their innovative ideas, their energy and their proactive attitude. The young people in the NDP are not only the leaders of the future – they are leaders today. Many have gone on from their experiences in the youth wing to play key roles in the party. They are helping to shape the direction of the party now so that it will be where it needs to be in 10 or 20 years.
The NPD is very committed towards youth involvement, and we have taken many steps to develop our college and university presence, we’ve hired a person who does youth outreach. The youth energy is strong in our party!
geoffrey (Forum Member): How do you see the unionized labour movement and business working together to improve Canada’s productivity compared to the rest of the OECD?
Jack Layton: At a time when we are facing crises in our core industries – manufacturing, auto and forestry – it’s important to look at every potential tool to solve them.
Unions are responsible for many of the advantages that workers have in Canada – decent wages, benefits and safe working conditions. These conditions attract workers to our country. The labour movement and business could to work together to attract talent to Canada and to ensure that the talent that we have already stays here by making Canada a leader in labour standards.
Companies often cite our skilled workforce as a reason to set up business in Canada. Unions and business could work together to invest in training and education in order to develop a skilled and stable workforce that makes Canada productive and makes us competitive at a global level.
But this work is not just up to unions and business. The government has an important role to play in facilitating this cooperation, in investing in training and education and in taking steps to address the crises in our core industries.
jdobbin (Forum Member): Should the leader of the Greens party be allowed to join the leader’s debate in the next election?
Jack Layton: It is the networks that have always made the decisions about who participates in the leaders’ debate. It will be up to them to make the decision again in the next election.
August1991 (Forum Member): Bob Rae characterized the Ontario NDP as a party of protest, but not a party of power. How do you view the federal NDP – is it a party of power or protest?
Jack Layton: The NDP is a party with strong principles that works hard to put in place pragmatic solutions to the problems facing everyday people. We know what we believe, we are united, and we stand up every day for working and middle-class families.
Our actions speak loud: we are the effective opposition to Stephen Harper in the House of Commons.