The Commons: Tough crowd

Shortly after Jack Layton entered the room, the crowd rose and applauded. Several began to chant the initials of his party. This was to be a “town hall” with the NDP leader. At least in so far as that gathering in that guy’s kitchen was a town hall on the effectiveness of the Magic Bullet blender.

In the middle of the room were two black leather chairs, a table with two glasses of water between the chairs. On all four sides were neat rows of chairs. On the back wall, the requisite Canadian flag of requisite size. Mr. Layton took one chair, his smiley female host took the other. He had eschewed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. When he was formally introduced by the smiley female host, many in the audience chanted his first name.

With two small microphones attached to his dark orange tie, he proceeded to first review all of the ways Ottawa was broken and all of the ways he intended to fix it. The crowd, many of whom wore orange buttons, applauded and booed at all the right points.

The floor was then turned over for questions.

The first man lamented for the exclusion of Elizabeth May from the debates, the talk of a separate debate between Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper, and the general unfairness of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Oddly enough, Mr. Layton agreed with him on all points.

A woman wondered what might be done to ensure affordable post-secondary education for all. Oddly enough, Mr. Layton said, the NDP has already written and proposed a law that would do just that.

A man wondered about the long-gun registry and the fraught vote that had split the NDP caucus in Parliament. This seemed, at first, to carry the potential for trouble, but Mr. Layton explained how his party had allowed MPs to vote as they wished and how those MPs had considered and taken their votes seriously and how the party was committed to finding compromise and agreement on the issue. And this was enough to earn applause from the man who’d asked.

An environmentalist asked about some climate legislation the NDP had authored and lamented that the Senate had prevented that legislation from being enacted. Oddly enough, Mr. Layton agreed with her on all points and encouraged her to keep up the good work.

The town hall as a political forum is both fraught and simple. The medium is the message. Here the politician can show himself open and responsive to the public at large. But then there is the small matter of the public. Their questions can be complicated. They may have complaints. The politician may be rebuked, scolded or mocked. This may seem unflattering to the politician when reported on that night’s news. On the other hand, the crowd may be too obviously supportive. In which case it will begin to feel like the politician is peddling single use blenders.

Mind you, that’s also a fairly accurate description of the politician’s job.

Mr. Layton is surely an effective pitchman: gesturing with his hands, looking around the room, periodically adopting folksy language and phrasing (at one point today, “at all” became “a’tall”). He is most certainly a politician, with everything that entails.

Nearer the end of the 45 minutes, a young man in a hoodie stepped forward. By way of introduction, he said that he had voted Conservative in the last election. Someone booed, but Mr. Layton appealed for calm, saying that all were welcome. The young man in the hoodie said he was sure Canada was the best country on earth and he had voted Conservative because of his belief in Canadian values. Alas, by the reckoning of the young man in the hoodie, the Conservative party had become to betray these values, aligning itself more so with the United States. He was concerned, for instance, about the proposed purchase of new fighter jets.

Oddly enough, Mr. Layton was also concerned about the proposed purchase of new fighter jets. By Mr. Layton’s reckoning, it was time for a “national debate” on how best to equip the Canadian military. The young man in the hoodie clapped and nodded. Mr. Layton spoke of straying true to the notion of peace. The young man in the hoodie clapped and nodded. Mr. Layton brought the conversation around to the pride with which we regard our universal health care system. The young man in the hoodie clapped and nodded.

Last was a young man in a keyboard tie, a recent graduate, who was quite displeased with the banks. Oddly enough, Mr. Layton found much in what he said with which he could agree.

Soon thereafter it was time for Mr. Layton to take his leave. The crowd stood once more and once again chanted the initials of his party. Many seemed eager to buy what Mr. Layton was selling.

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