Jack Layton’s last letter to Canadians was, as everyone was told from the very beginning, a collegial affair.  Layton, party president Brian Topp, chief of staff Anne McGrath, and his wife and colleague Olivia Chow all had input into the final draft.

The letter was hortatory rhetoric, defined as writing that encourages its audience to pursue, or not pursue, some course of action rather than another.

Sections of the letter, his “additional thoughts”, were aimed at various groups such as NDP members, NDP MPs, Quebecers, young Canadians, and all Canadians. It concluded with a classical peroration, clearly indicated by Layton’s trademark “My Friends.” A peroration is the conclusion of a speech intended to arouse strong feelings.  The letter was generally in the style of rhetoric that President Barrack Obama favours.  It is moving in general, but short on details.

The beginning of the letter is quite different.  It makes several specific recommendations, and justifies them in a curious manner.  Keep Nycole Turmel as interim leader and hold a leadership convention early in the new year.

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The justification was tenuous.  These arrangements were suggested “so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.”

The appointment of Turmel was a controversial choice when Layton first made it.  Older than most of the caucus, she was a former soft separatist with no national experience. She knows little of the arcane ways of the House of Commons. When she was first appointed, there was hope that Layton would recover and resume his duties as leader.

Her appointment as interim leader under these circumstances could be seen as a symbolic recognition of the importance of the Quebec contingent in the NDP caucus. However, to extend her tenure through the opening of parliament and into the new year is curious.  It may have been thought necessary because so few of the MPs from the ROC speak French. Equally possible is that Turmel was intended to be a placeholder, whose main role was to prevent anyone else serving as Leader of the Opposition and leveraging the position in a pursuit of the permanent leadership. It is hard to say if this was intended against anyone in particular.

The other provision strikes me that it was a move against Thomas Mulcair, a 57-year old lawyer and university professor. A former minister in Jean Charest’s Provincial Liberal government, he was a star candidate for the NDP and first won his riding of Outremont for the party in 2007. Dynamic, articulate, effortlessly bilingual, he would seem an attractive ideal leader.

Yet the recommendation that the convention be held as early as possible in the new year seems particularly intended to harm his chances. The NDP elects its leader by secret ballot. In 2003 some members voted in person at the convention, some used postal ballots and others voted over the internet.  The constitution guarantees, somewhat undemocratically, that the trade union portion of the vote will be 25%, regardless of how many trade union representatives actually cast their vote.

The NDP has very, very few actual members in Quebec. A Quebec-based candidate like Mulcair needs time to sign up members and make himself known to the party faithful across the country.

Whether the early convention proposal was specifically intended to block Mulcair, it clearly would harm him. Two elements suggested that it was aimed at Mulcair.

First, the reasons it gave for an early convention are very weak. The next election will probably be held in 2015, and the NDP has just come off a very successful election campaign which left is vigorous and without any obvious divisions. Why then does the new leader need to “reconsolidate” the team or renew the party and its program? If the NDP wasn’t renewed by going from 29 seats (2006) to 37 in 2008 and then soaring to 103 in the most recent election, picking a new leader quickly isn’t going to help.

Why is this provision there? One of the people who drafted it, Brian Topp, would be one of, and likely the greatest, beneficiary. Topp is talked about as a serious leadership contender.  As party president, he already has a national presence and support throughout the country. He would gains much as Mulcair loses.

One way to figure out what’s going on in a situation like this is to ask, in the Latin phrase, “cui bono,” who does it benefit? The letter’s provisions seem far from neutral, and Mulcair has every right to protest them.


Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Marshall Letcher

    I foresee a rocky road ahead for the NDP and interim leader Nycole Turmel as the party’s various iterations of their 2011 campaign platform collide with political reality in the House of Commons. It also doesn’t bode well for the future leader of the party no matter who they choose.

  2. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an email. I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it grow over time.


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About William Christian

William Christian formerly taught political science at Mount Allison University and the University of Guelph. He has contributed regularly to newspapers for over thirty years. His biography of Canadian philosopher George Grant was a national best-seller. He recently published Parkin: Canada's Most Famous Forgotten Man (Blue Butterfly Books), a biography of Grant's maternal grandfather (and Michael Ignatieff's great-grandfather). He lives in Guelph, Ontario. He tweets at @WEChristian.

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