The Last Honest Man   Leave a comment


One unanticipated hazard of job hunting in Canada is what happens when the writ is dropped.  Leads go colder than glacial ice and they stay that way for weeks.  Wise Canadian job hunters keep an eye out for the possibility of that thunderous event coming from Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

‘Dropping the writ’ has no translation in the American political lexicon.  The U.S. political system has nothing like it.  For readers outside Canada, a brief lesson in Canadian civics is in order:

Canada is a multi-party parliamentary democracy.  Its Parliament operates according to the Westminster rules used in the United Kingdom.

Parliamentary elections are required at least once every five years.  Elections usually happen under one of the following scenarios:

1.)  the ruling party loses a vote of confidence
2.)  the head of the ruling party (i.e. the Prime Minister) decides to call an election at a time when his/her party is riding high in the polls, thereby ensuring their continued rule.

In March 2011, the minority Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper lost a budget vote.  Budgets are confidence measures in Canadian politics.  Losing a budget vote in the House of Commons translates to a vote of non-confidence in the ruling party’s ability to continue governing.

The Prime Minister cannot simply stroll over to a podium and announce an upcoming election.  He or she must formally visit Rideau Hall to see the Governor General (the British monarch’s representative and head of state).  The Prime Minister asks the Governor General, a political appointee approved by the British monarch, to formally dissolve Parliament and call an election.  This is called ‘dropping the writ.’

By convention, the Governor General usually grants the request.

Canada has a House of Commons and an appointed Senate (which usually rubber-stamps laws passed by Commons before passing them on to the Governor General for signature).  Each member of  Commons (known as a ‘Member of Parliament’ or ‘MP’ for short) represents one of 308 electoral districts across the country known as a riding.

Everyone in the Prime Minister’s cabinet – including the Prime Minister – and every current member of Parliament wanting to remain in office has to run for re-election to the House of Commons.

The leader of the party winning the most ridings around the country becomes the next Prime Minister if his/her party wins over half the ridings in Canada’s ‘First Past the Post’ system (‘winner take all’ in the U.S.).  The runner-up party gets the consolation prize of becoming the “Official Opposition.”  Independent MPs and those from other parties are consigned to spend the next few years jockeying over time at the microphone.  Game over.

A party failing to capture at least half of the seats in Commons is a wrench in the system.  The Governor General may allow the party with the most seats to form a government if that party can form a coalition with another party winning enough seats in Commons to jointly meet the 155-seat majority threshold.  Otherwise, the Governor General may call another election or allow the second-place party to try to form a government with other runner-up parties if their combined ranks can reach the magic number.

Harper lost the budget vote, but was hardly left in a position to worry.  The Conservatives have ample party discipline to make their American GOP mentors proud.  Nobody from Harper’s own party deserted him.  In March the three opposition parties – the Liberals, New Democratic Party (NDP) and the separatist Bloc Québécois – ganged up on his budget and beat it with a stick.

Until that point, the politically progressive Bloc provided the swing votes Harper needed to pass his minority government budgets.  Cajoling them wasn’t tasty medicine to swallow.  To keep the Bloc on his side, Harper handed out lots of carrots.  This time around, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe demanded $2 billion from the proposed budget be directed to Quebec as compensation for harmonizing provincial and federal sales taxes and to build a new NHL-ready hockey arena in Quebec City.  Harper didn’t blink.  Non!

During those six weeks, party leaders are usually expected to appear in at least three nationally televised debates (whittled down to two this past election), including one conducted entirely in French(!) for audiences in Quebec.

These are real debates with candidates standing behind formal podiums and governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, conveniently ignored on occasion once gloves are off.   It’s the stuff done on competitive high school and college debate teams by geeks without calculators – only with much more skill and finesse by party leaders having much more at stake.

Canadian political debates would make the heads of American presidential candidates explode.  No moderated casual conversations at a round table.  Interruptions are a no-no.  Personal attacks usually go over as well as a lead balloon.  Canadian party leaders don’t have the advantage of getting the questions in advance and lead time to pull an all-nighter.  Prepping for debate requires party leaders to have a handle on the hot topics of the day and be ready to address them succinctly at the drop of a hat.  Pithy policy soundbites like those favored in U.S. “debates” don’t work unless deployed with precise timing to deliver a K.O. punch.

The person having the toughest job during this election cycle was not a party leader or MP, nor a debate moderator.  That honor went to the poor sot charged with scheduling debates.

The Stanley Cup playoffs provided too much competition for the hearts and minds of voters.  Canada’s TV networks moved up the French-language debate by one day because it conflicted with a Montreal Canadiens playoff game.

This is Canada.  Hockey rules.  Nothing is allowed to mess with a Habs playoff game in Quebec, federal election be damned.  On the other end of the country, the Vancouver Canucks also made the playoffs.  The scheduler couldn’t win.

Six weeks:  Ready, set, go!

Party leaders, except for Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois traveled across the Canadian map.  Duceppe had his work cut out for him to travel the lone map of importance to the Bloc – Quebec.

For the most part, the leaders were uninspiring in debates.  Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff are notoriously known for having all the on-camera and large audience charm of tree trunks.  Uncharacteristically Duceppe looked like a deer in the headlights.

The lone candidate who impressed professional observers was Jack Layton, leader of the NDP.  Known as a formidable debater, Layton didn’t K.O. anyone in the debates.  He didn’t have to.  To use a boxing analogy, Layton won on points in a weirdly Prime Ministerial fashion.

Weirdly because the federal NDP historically is just enough of a political juggernaut to barely keep its official party status alive by capturing at least 5% of the vote.  On the federal level, most Canadians ignored it; Quebec barely acknowledged it on any level.

All of Canada’s major political parties are in some way to the left of the Democrats in the U.S.  The NDP takes it to another level.  It’s on par with Europe’s Socialist parties.  (Vermont Senator Bernie Saunders would be at home in the NDP; he is a Democratic Socialist.)

Jack Layton was on a roll.   As the campaign progressed, he physically looked less and less like a steamroller and increasingly frail.  Dashing across the country appeared to take its tool.  Known as a high-energy gym rat, Layton walked aided by a cane, the necessary side effect of recent hip surgery.  Only a year earlier, he beat prostate cancer.  Layton’s reliance on the cane became more noticeable late in the campaign.

Nonetheless, Layton was a charismatic Energizer Bunny on the campaign trail, posing tirelessly with supporters in innumerable photos shot by cell phone cameras.  He wasn’t ‘The Honourable Mr. Layton’ or even ‘Mr. Layton’ or ‘Layton’.  To his growing legion of devotees, he was simply ‘Jack’.

During the final two weeks of the campaign, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois looked vulnerable.  Like the NDP, the federal Conservatives didn’t have a toehold in Quebec.  Rather than allow the federal Liberals to claim Quebec’s scraps as done by previous NDP leaders, Layton gave chase.

Layton’s gambit was one of the craziest seen by political observers.  The political and social goals of the NDP and Bloc are similar with one stark exception – the Bloc advocates for a sovereign, fully independent Quebec.  Conventional wisdom dictates Francophone Quebecois prefer their home-grown Bloc to anything offered by the NDP – a party chasing the votes of English Canada.

Armed with nearly unaccented French fluency rare within the NDP ranks, Jack Layton invaded Duceppe’s turf.  Layton proved a hit with disaffected Bloc supporters and young voters alike who dubbed him “Jacq” – French for ‘Jack’.  Within no time, Duceppe’s already shaky numbers were in free fall.

The NDP’s newfound popularity wasn’t driven by Layton’s charismatic presence alone.  The Liberal party, tainted by the ‘Adscam’ scandal, fell from power in 2006, replaced by the ruling Conservatives.

However, Elections Canada accused the Conservatives in early 2011 of violating federal elections laws five years earlier.  More recently, Stephen Harper’s Cabinet was found in contempt of Parliament (unprecedented in Canadian history) for its refusal to disclose details of proposed bills and their cost estimates as requested by opponents.

Canadians don’t cotton well to political scandals.  Jack Layton, throughout his long political career on Toronto’s City Council and on Parliament Hill was never tarnished by one, only by the occasional unproven allegation.  Those CPC and Liberal scandals became Layton’s political punching bag, along with suspicions of hidden agendas owned by Harper and Ignatieff.  Late attempts to turn the tables on Layton by linking him to a scandal backfired badly.  One voter interviewed by the CBC at an NDP rally called Layton, “the last honest man in politics.”

Duceppe’s Quebec was a changing canvas.  Young Quebec voters aren’t as passionate about separatism as their elders.  Remaining within Canada affords them greater career and social mobility.  Canada recognizes their French language and distinct culture.  They have what they want in Quebec.

While the Bloc continued addressing concerns of interest to young Quebecers, its effectiveness was blunted by its role as a separatist party unique to Quebec.  Quebecers saw a chance to join up with English Canada to address issues of importance to them across the whole of the country including Quebec, the first being the defeat of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

Little doubt existed when the writ was dropped that the CPC would remain Canada’s governing party; the only question was whether theirs would be a majority or remain a minority government.

Jack Layton’s late surge scared the pants off his Liberal, Conservative and Bloc Québécois foes alike.  All quaked at the fear of an orange planet (the symbolic color of the NDP) with Jack at the helm.  Poll numbers showed Layton within striking distance of Stephen Harper’s heels and conceivably of 26 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s residence.

With a vengeance, Harper and the CPC fought back, launching a late barrage of ads stoking fears of an orange planet.  They appeared cribbed from those used by the GOP in the States against its most liberal Democratic foes – a tactic designed to appeal to the fears of Liberal supporters normally loyal to their party but lukewarm in their love for leader Michael Ignatieff.

An unexpected air of suspense hung over May 2, 2011, Election Day.

Differences in how Canada and the U.S. run elections are akin to the difference between night and day:

  • Election laws in Canada are federal laws.  That includes voter registration, the number of hours polls must remain open and the printing of ballots.  One doesn’t hear of Election Day shenanigans the likes of what happened over the past decade in Florida and Ohio.  Every Canadian wishing to vote, wherever he or she lives, must meet identical criteria and follow the same rules to register.
  • Voters don’t choose the Prime Minister directly (unless he/she represents the voter’s riding).  They vote for the person or party they want to represent their riding in Parliament.  The only Canadian voters who saw Stephen Harper’s name on their ballot were those in Harper’s riding of Calgary Southwest.
  • Federal level and provincial or local level elections are not combined on a single ballot as in the United States.  The only office listed on the ballot is that for the riding’s Member of Parliament.
  • Between the time polls open in Newfoundland and Labrador and close in British Columbia, Canada’s easternmost and westernmost provinces respectively, no results or projections are reported in the media.  No exit surveys are taken.
  • In a bit of high-tech wizardry, every Canadian voter receives a paper ballot containing the names of the individuals and the party each represents running for Commons.  Next to each name is a little box.  Voters mark the box of their favored candidate, fold the ballot and stuff it into a (gasp!) ballot box under the watchful eye of an Elections Canada monitor.  No intermediary step of running the ballot through a OCR scanner exists.  Canada doesn’t use them, or electronic ballots or punch cards.  After the polls close, Elections Canada engages in the high-tech process of (gasp!) counting all the ballots by hand at the polling station within hours after the polls close, usually reporting results within a 2-hour window.  Before results are finalized a couple of days later, all ballots are transported to a counting station for a second hand count.

This latter point does not compute in the United States, which has ten times the population of Canada.  Vote early and vote often was a longtime Election Day mantra in corrupt American cities like Chicago governed by strong mayors and powerful political and party machines.

Canada is not Chicago.  Canadians may vote early and often, but not on the same day.

A straight-arrow churchgoing family man, Stephen Harper isn’t a guy one would expect to find playing Texas Hold ‘Em in a local casino.  The world of politics is Harper’s casino.  He bet the house on Canadians’ fear of an orange (socialist!) planet and won a huge jackpot.  The Conservative Party of Canada raised its share of Commons seats from 143 to 166, cementing its long-sought majority status.

As historic as Harper’s victory was (the first majority government having its party origins and leadership primarily from western Canada), it paled in comparison to other results.

The Green Party elected its first Member of Parliament.

Jack Layton carried his NDP party to new heights, increasing its share of Commons seats from 36 to a whopping 103 – a gain of 67 seats – an “Orange Crush” decimating the ranks of rival Liberals and Bloc Québécois alike which gave the NDP the title of “Official Opposition” for the first time.

Bloc Québécois and Liberal leaders Gilles Duceppe and Michael Ignatieff found themselves punted into the street.  Both lost their re-election bids.  The Liberals were badly wounded, relegated to third-party status after losing 43 seats to Conservatives and the NDP.  The “Orange Crush” steamrolled the Bloc, which lost a stunning 43 of its 47 seats – and its official party status. – mostly to the NDP.

One political analyst credited Layton’s long-standing reputation for personal honesty, compassion and fearless courage in the face of ridicule as a factor in the NDP’s dramatic turnaround.

As political analysts continued wagging how Jack Layton might perform as Official Opposition leader, the shoe dropped.  Layton called a press conference in late July announcing his plan to step down temporarily as NDP leader to fight a new unspecified cancer unrelated to the prostate cancer he fought in early 2010.   Ever the optimist, he planned to focus on his medical treatment and return in time when Parliament re-convenes on September 19.

His face gaunt, his body frail and his voice raspy, he appeared as a ghost of his former self.  This was not the same man who, with wife Olivia Chow (another Toronto-area MP) at his side, claimed the keys to Stornaway, the Official Opposition leader’s residence less than three months earlier.

And then, he was gone.

Jack Layton died in the early hours of August 22, 2011 at his Toronto home surrounded by loved ones.  He was 61 years old.

Though the two men were never fast friends, Stephen Harper afforded Layton a state funeral – an honor nearly exclusive to current and former prime ministers, cabinet members and governor generals.

No one connected with Layton, his party or campaign will flat-out disclose whether Layton knew he suffered from a fatal illness during the campaign.  Coincidental evidence and Layton’s own actions point in that direction.

Layton left behind a rare gift – a letter on official “Official Opposition” stationery addressed to Canadians, penned only two days before his death.   Segments of the letter were addressed to specific groups:  his party and its parliamentary caucus, Canadians fighting cancer, young Canadians, Quebec voters and, finally, to all Canadians.

It was the strangest, saddest end to an election anyone could imagine.

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