After he led the NDP to its breakthrough in the election last May 2, Jack Layton returned to Ottawa vowing to set a new tone. “One thing that we’re going to be doing is having no heckling,” said the new leader of the official Opposition. “It is difficult to speak in the House of Commons when you have boorish comments being yelled in your ear at top volume by people a few feet away.”
But Layton would have only the briefest chance to watch his marching orders be put into effect. In July, his fragile health took a terrible turn, and on Aug. 22, he died of cancer at just 61. In the national mourning that followed, Layton’s personal qualities and campaigning abilities were celebrated. But his parliamentary style and strategy were less frequently remembered, even though he established himself over his mere eight years on the federal stage as an uncommonly talented—and unusually shrewd—performer inside the House.
It wasn’t always obvious that Layton would put such emphasis on the Commons. When he was running for the NDP leadership in 2002, his background as a Toronto municipal politician made him a Parliament Hill outsider. His main rival, Bill Blaikie, was a veteran MP and acknowledged expert on the House. Blaikie says Layton used the 18 months he spent as the party’s leader before finally winning a seat in the 2004 election to study the place. “He certainly claimed at the time,” Blaikie recalls, “to be learning the art of asking a question by watching me and others as well.” It paid off. Layton proved himself a probing question period inquisitor and a stirring speech-maker.
And he didn’t hesitate to aggressively leverage his NDP votes when it mattered. In 2005, he extracted $4.6 billion for NDP priorities like affordable housing in return for temporarily propping up Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government. In 2008, he tried to forge a coalition with the Liberals—a controversial move he had quietly studied for years—to oust Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority. It nearly worked.
How he would have fared facing a Harper majority is, sadly, now a matter only for conjecture, as we pay tribute to the late Jack Layton’s rare achievements as a parliamentarian.