Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Layton's Challenge

Following up on my thoughts on the hidden limits that majority governments face, it's worth thinking about what Jack Layton has to do to be an effective Opposition leader.  The biggest challenge will be the perception of his caucus as inexperienced, which could easily become a narrative that Layton's team is not ready to govern, which even if Harper's lot stumbles could prove fatal to any hopes of an NDP government.

The biggest key will be his selections for front bench (or "shadow cabinet" as sometimes called).  These are the MPs who generally ask the bulk of the questions during Question Period.  They're the ones who, if they can land hits will be covered by the media and if they get outwitted, will make Harper's group look good.

Layton is fortunate to have a decent set of experienced MPs who are good at jousting in Parliament.  This includes Layton himself, who as Opposition leader decides the order of Opposition questions and usually leads off the questions on the biggest issue of the day.  So Layton will have plenty of limelight.  But he will need to share some limelight in order to build the perception that he has a strong team, ready to take charge if Canadians decide they want a change in four years.

In a very real sense, this is a very similar task as the Prime Minister picking his cabinet.  Layton will have to try and ensure adequate representation from all regions, as well as diversity of backgrounds of the individuals chosen.  One real challenge in this area will be that the majority of Layton's caucus comes from Quebec, and yet are overwhelmingly rookies.  How many front bench slots does he give to untried fresh faces?  How many of his existing Shadow Cabinet does he demote to the back benches?  He's pretty much maxed out in Quebec, so his job next election is to win more seats in English Canada.  He will have to balance the expectations of Quebec voters who have taken a chance electing his party, and the need to appeal to other regions in order to grow a winning coalition.

Given that his caucus will be the overwhelming majority of the Opposition itself, the NDP will get the bulk of the questions and that's one nice thing about knocking the BQ down below official party status, he really only has to share significant time with the Liberals (though independent MPs do get to ask questions sometimes, and one of the independents is actually Green Party leader Elizabeth May, how Layton handles her will be interesting to watch).

My own non-expert thought is that Layton might be wise to pick his best veterans for the key slots (finance, foreign affairs, defence) and assign a solid number of slots to the Quebec newcomers, but curtail their Question time until he has a better handle on their abilities.  He's going to have to make changes often in the early going here to seperate wheat from chaff and not allow a "not ready for prime time" meme to gain steam.  First impressions will be important, so he has to ensure the first week or so of QP goes smoothly before giving any of the more unknown elements a chance at the limelight. 

Building his party from a distant fourth to Official Opposition was a real test of Layton's political and campaigning acumen.  This is a different sort of test.  Before Layton had a small, manageable team.  The NDP federally has no institutional memory of managing 100+ MPs.  It's a real management challenge and a different ballgame.  Certainly Harper had a rough go of it, with a number of prominent bad cabinet picks.  Luckily the spotlight is generally on the Government.  If the competence of the Opposition becomes the issue, that's already a really bad sign.  As long as Layton can identify and minimize any weak MPs, and have his veterans manage to keep the media looking at the Government, he should be able to settle in and spend the next four years building the narratives he'll need come the next campaign.  The people of Canada will not be better off in 2015, and they should blame Stephen Harper while seeing Jack Layton as the guy and the NDP as the party to fix his mistakes. That's what he has to sell now and he has four years to do it.

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