GLORIA GALLOWAY, BILL CURRY AND STEVEN CHASE
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
TORONTO, NEW GLASGOW, N.S., VAUGHAN, ONT. As the head of a political party that prides itself on being the voice of inclusion and popular democracy, Jack Layton had been put into an especially prickly position.
For two days, the NDP Leader was lambasted for his party's decision to bar Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the October federal election debates.
His critics spanned a wide spectrum: from the YWCA, to feminist activist Judy Rebick, to members of Mr. Layton's own party who quietly told reporters at campaign stops that they did not understand what was in their leader's head.
Mr. Layton's Facebook page was flooded with posts from people identifying themselves as NDP supporters, expressing displeasure and even farewell with such comments as: “What the hell Jack?” “Truly disgusting.” “No excuse.” “This is wrong.” “Opportunistic.”
And at every news conference at every campaign stop, reporters demanded an explanation.
Mr. Layton repeatedly blamed the broadcast consortium that made the final call about Ms. May's exclusion. His party had simply agreed to abide by the rules, he said.
But both the NDP and the Conservatives said they threatened to boycott the event if Ms. May was given a place on the stage with the other leaders.
Mr. Layton and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said they objected to her presence because, on occasion, she had expressed support for Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion. Allowing her into the debate would effectively put two Liberals on the stage, they argued.
The explanation did nothing to quell the voices calling for Ms. May's inclusion.
At a news conference in Oshawa, east of Toronto, on Wednesday morning where Mr. Layton unveiled a key plank in his campaign platform – an $8-billion plan to create 40,000 jobs in a new “green economy” – reporters remained more interested in the Green Party's banishment from the debate .
And across the parking lot, a small group waved Green Party signs and chanted: “Let Elizabeth speak.”
“The majority of Canadians want Elizabeth at the debate,” said Cavan Gostlin, a protester whose ex-wife, Pat Gostlin, is running for the Greens.
If Mr. Layton and Mr. Harper say allowing Ms. May to participate would put two Liberal leaders on the stage, “let them make that point in the debate,” Mr. Gostlin said.
It was a small demonstration, but one that threatened to be repeated at other stops of the NDP campaign.
Two hours after the Oshawa event, at another stop in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Mr. Layton raised the white flag.
“I have only one condition for this debate, that the Prime Minister is there, because I want to debate the issues with him. I don't want to be debating the debate forever,” Mr. Layton told reporters.
“If the Prime Minister is there, I will be there, period,” he said.
NDP sources said Mr. Layton was tired of the controversy dominating every news conference and drowning out issues he considers important.
In the end, one NDP official said, the party realized reporters were not going to change their line of questioning until the matter was resolved – and the whole issue was not worth the aggravation.
Mr. Layton's about-face put the onus on Mr. Harper to decide whether the ban against Ms. May would be lifted.
The Conservatives said that, as early as morning, their campaign staff talked with NDP officials and there was no indication that Mr. Layton was reconsidering.
“In fact, they gave us an indication to the contrary,” a senior Conservative Party official said.
The Tories heard that Mr. Layton had reversed his position only when the NDP Leader informed journalists that was the case. “We learned of it by newswire,” the Conservative official said.
The New Democrats confirm there was no discussion between the two camps before Mr. Layton backed down.
Left alone in their opposition, the Conservatives quickly gave up the fight.
Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke said his party did not want to be the odd man out.
“It appears the NDP has changed their position. Our position has been to support the NDP on this point of principle. We are not going to be the only ones to boycott the debate,” Mr. Teneycke said.
Mr. Teneycke went on to say that, given the reversal, it is only fair that all parties be allowed to bring to the debate their candidate for Central Nova, where Ms. May is running for the Greens. He was referring to the fact that Mr. Dion has agreed not to run a Liberal candidate in the Nova Scotia riding, leaving the field more open for Ms. May.
The Conservative jab did nothing to dampen Ms. May's delight.
She shouted with joy in her New Glasgow, N.S., campaign office as she watched CTV Newsnet report that the Conservatives had backed down.
“I want to thank every single one of thousands and thousands and thousands of Canadians who cared enough about democracy to protest the initial decision that I would not be included,” she said as she waited for the broadcasting consortium to say she would be accepted into the debate.
That confirmation came late in the afternoon.
The Liberals, meanwhile, put out a release taking credit for the change of heart of the other parties.
“It's a good day for women, it's a good day for Canadian democracy. I'm pleased that Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton backtracked. It was time,” Mr. Dion said.
Canadians across the country expressed support for the decision.
Kempton Lam, a Calgarian who has never voted Green before, said Mr. Layton and Mr. Harper “lost big marks” with their initial refusal to allow Ms. May into the debate.
“When I found out [that the decision was reversed] I was really happy, and this is going to sound corny, but my eyes were a little wet,” Mr. Lam said.
“We collectively were able to reverse a seemingly irreversible decision.”
With a report from Jane Taber
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