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Layton returns to his gambling ways

The Globe and Mail, Nov. 11, 2005

Ottawa — The new Jack Layton has been borrowing from the old.

In the past week, Ottawa's political world has see-sawed in a fit of uncertainty over whether, and when, the opposition will bring the Liberal government down. And it was all sparked because NDP Leader Jack Layton announced he could not work with the Liberals any more, and was now willing to pull the plug.

It was a reminder of the edgy politics for which Mr. Layton has long been known. But for several months, Mr. Layton has been rebuilding himself into something else.

In the hurly-burly of a minority Parliament, the NDP Leader has portrayed himself as the earnest, reasonable leader in the Commons, often tut-tut ting at procedural battles over the government's survival, and insisting he wants to focus on issues that matter to Canadians, like the environment, subsidized housing, education and health.

He has cooled down the risk-taking, microphone-loving persona that accused Prime Minister Paul Martin of causing the death of homeless people and had him dubbed "a Toronto stunt man" by Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

But he is taking a big risk once more, announcing the government might fall -- and two days later, proposing a non-binding "compromise," calling for a January election campaign and a February vote, and yesterday joining threats to bring down the government if it does not concede.

Robin Sears, a former NDP strategist, likes to note that he has watched Mr. Layton skate close to the edge for years, on issues ranging from AIDS to homelessness, thinking he would fall, but he rarely did. He said Mr. Layton's latest gambit is hard to judge so far.

"Ask me at midnight on election day," Mr. Sears said. "The challenge, in this kind of situation, is that you have an absolutely even chance of being either a hero or dead."

There have been conflicting reports from New Democrats and staffers about how the election-timing strategies developed. But they agree it was the result of a recognition in the party that they needed to split with the Liberals before it was too late.

NDP soft-liners argued last spring it was dangerous to defeat the Liberals and aid the Conservatives to power. But over time, veteran MPs such as Ed Broadbent and Bill Blaikie warned the NDP traditionally does not fare well after teaming up during a minority Parliament with the Liberals, who use the alliance to sell themselves to left-leaning voters. And Justice John Gomery's report on the sponsorship scandal meant that allegations of Liberal kickbacks were now fact.

"That makes it that much more dangerous to be associated with that to any degree," said one New Democrat MP. "Politics is all about contrasts, and you have to differentiate yourselves clearly."

Risk-taking is an idea that Mr. Layton acknowledges he embraces. In an interview, he recounted a conversation with a business leader who told him that business leaders are expected to succeed most of the time, but fail sometimes, while in politics, failures are amplified, making people avoid risk.

"Take climate change," he said. "If we sit back and spend all our time simply thinking about it and wringing our hands about what it might be, and don't move towards addressing it on a more urgent and pro-active basis, we may find ourselves having closed several options because we waited too long."

He attributes part of the change that people have seen in his public tone as adjusting to a new role as a federal MP. For his first 18 months as leader, his public role was to head to the microphone and "scrum" with reporters.

After he was elected last year and stood in the Commons, he insists, it changed his perspective.

"When you're rising in the House, it's a place that's rich in tradition, you think of the importance of what you're about to say in a place like that," he said.

The adjustment, according to some in the federal NDP, is also one of the lessons he learned as a federal party leader.

His reputation as a leader who consults with his caucus and party is usually accurate, even critics admit, but he asks for approval of strategy that he and his advisers have already developed. He is willing to listen to new ideas brought forward by others, but some say he does not like when his own plans are obstructed.

"He doesn't like advice from people who disagree with them," said someone who has worked closely with him, and spoke on condition he would not be named.

Mr. Layton had arrived in federal politics with that reputation for edginess earned at Toronto's City Hall. The party tried to surround him with veteran advisers, more in tune with the rest of the country, who could control his style.

In the end, however, he leaned back to an inner circle of close, long-time confidantes, mostly from his old Toronto gang, before he repackaged himself as a quieter, gentler Jack.

His "kitchen cabinet" notably includes his wife, Toronto City Councillor Olivia Chow, who is in constant contact, offering political advice, while his communications director Jamey Heath, is a key leadership-campaign adviser whose advice is so trusted that he is viewed by some as Mr. Layton's de facto chief of staff.

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