Jack Layton, RIP
There have been countless articles and comments in the past week about Jack Layton, who led the NDP, for the first time in their history, to the position of official opposition in the federal government in Canada. For me, three comments stand out: he would have made a great Prime Minister; he truly cared for the average Canadian; and he was a builder.
Would he have made a great Prime Minister?
I never met the man, so my view is tempered by the experiences of others, and based on these I conclude that he would not have made a great, or even good PM.
Paul Martin, whom I do know, did care for the average Canadian. He is a decent person. He supported Canada’s social programs and our safety net, and the original Paul Martin could have fit very nicely within the NDP fold.
He will be known for two things however. He tamed the government’s budget deficit, and he failed as Prime Minister. In “taming” the deficit, he downloaded a substantial part of the problem onto the provincial governments, and in the process, greatly cut back federal funding for the social programs he favored. Making decisions is never easy, and oftentimes, decision-makers, especially those who are not real leaders, must sacrifice their principles.
When Martin finally became PM, he was like a deer caught in the headlights. He was lost, and seemingly had no idea what to do. He was now in charge, but he could not make any decisions. Consequently, he set the stage for Harper to eventually become the PM, and Jack Layton to become the official leader of the opposition.
Barack Obama, who has superior oratorical skills than Martin, wowed the US electorate with speeches. But as we have learned, it is very easy to say things, and even make promises; it is very difficult to be a leader and make decisions. A real leader must have a vision, one that realistically can be developed and implemented. Obama had no real vision, and has made little effort to sway people in his direction on those rare occasions where he actually had a direction.
Bob Rae, the current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, once was the NDP Premier of Ontario. He too cared for the people like Layton, and he fought all his life against injustice and inequality, and in favor of stronger and wider social safety nets. When he became Premier, he too was lost. He staggered from one policy blunder to another, and he set back the NDP in Ontario for generations.
Sarkozy in France and Papandreou the younger in Greece also have discovered how difficult it is to transition from rhetoric to action. Thus, why should I have expected Layton to succeed when these people did not? After all, he was just a career politician, and given my views on term limits, I don’t believe career politicians make good leaders or sound decision makers.
In partial defense of Rae, Obama and Papandreou, they all had the bad luck of becoming leaders during punishing economic recessions.
I stress to my MBA students the importance of luck. Thus, I cannot blame the failures of these three entirely on their inability to be real leaders.
So, was Layton a great builder in leading the NDP to the status of official opposition?
If either or both of the federal Conservatives or Liberals had a charismatic leader with a vision, and the trust of Canadians during the time Layton led the NDP, would his party ever have moved beyond their position of an also-ran in national elections? I suspect they would not, and today they would not have been the official opposition.
But, to some degree like Chretien who became PM because the Conservatives were fighting their own civil war, Layton became leader at a time when the Liberals have become increasingly inept, and Prime MInister Harper can never be accused of being charismatic. Moreover, Harper has yet to gain the trust of Canadians. Timing and luck do matter!
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.