John Gilbert “Jack” Layton (1950-2011)

Jack Layton, the late NDP leader

Jack Layton, the recently deceased leader of the official Canadian opposition party, never pretended to be a friend to the business community. He was ardently committed to the principles of democratic socialism. Those two designations—non-friend to Bay Street, and constantly campaigning socialist—do not always need to go hand-in-hand, but in Mr. Layton’s case, they absolutely did.

Through his time in charge of the federal New Democratic Party, his top-level observations and policy statements regarding big business in general, and Big Pharma in particular, were dependably uninformed, and reliably calculated to annoy captains-of-industry. Correspondingly, those of us involved in the outskirts of healthcare derived much enjoyment from mocking his party’s antediluvian views on the subject. We found it especially comical when he proposed establishing, at taxpayer expense, a new state-owned drug discovery company that would bequeath its innovative therapies to all the deserving people of the world. Never mind that the last successful commercial enterprise of any sort Mr. Layton ran was probably a Gazette route in Hudson, Que., back in his childhood. After all, all you need to do to create a thriving drug company is go hire some bureaucrats; nothing more to it, really.

That aside, you generally knew where you stood with Mr. Layton, which is an extreme rarity in the present-day political sphere. Canadian politicians are known to pay lip-service to the principles of free enterprise, to the need for research, and to the importance of the private sector. And, then, when the chips are down, or when they think no one is watching, they will surely find a way to abandon the previous high-minded doctrine, and slip the spoils to their friends. (Are your ears burning, Allan Rock?)

The former Liberal Party head, Michael Ignatieff, seemed poised to continue this leadership tradition of speaking one way and acting another, and it may be said that Mr. Layton delivered an invaluable service to the nation by eliminating Mr. Ignatieff’s political future, during the course of a televised election debate earlier this year.

Pointing out that Mr. Ignatieff had “the worst attendance record in the House of Commons of any member of Parliament,” Mr. Layton did not disguise the joy he took in lambasting his opponent. “You know,” he said, “most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion. You missed 70 per cent of the votes.” Mr. Ignatieff’s response was to mime the mannerisms of a punctured balloon, right down to his final disappearance behind the furniture, for which Canadians will always owe Mr. Layton a debt of gratitude.

Voters’ subsequent response to this exchange was to elevate the New Democratic Party from fringe status, to that of parliamentary opposition. This stunning outcome had little to do with the quality of the NDP’s policies, philosophies, or personnel—all are lame—and everything to do with Mr. Layton’s ostensible attribute of genuineness. It will not dishonor his memory to point out that he was not entirely what he seemed. It is never an easy trick, to convincingly fake authenticity. But, for those who would seek public office, duplicity is as much a requirement as a snazzy necktie, and Mr. Layton certainly lived up to that required standard.

Indeed, when the subject turns to the politics of healthcare, we far prefer Mr. Layton’s brand of manipulative, self-serving naivety, if that’s what it was, to the crazed bombast of the U.S. politicians now vying for the Republican party nomination for the presidency. There, one candidate, Dr. Ron Paul of Texas, was recently asked apropos of his opposition to government-mandated health coverage, whether he agrees that the wealthiest nation in the world should simply let its ailing and uninsured citizens die without intervention. Dr. Paul, a physician who seems to have permanently misplaced his copy of the Hippocratic Oath, did not directly answer the question—but his audience did, lustily, with cries of “Yes!” and “Let them die!” This exchange contributed one more moment of disgrace to a shameful phase in American society. We Canadians may fall short when it comes to a number of measures, such as individual audacity, corporate philanthropy, and the overall number of locals who succeed in pro jai-alai careers, but watching Dr. Paul’s performance marked one of those times when you silently acknowledge our country’s continuing values of fundamental decency and civility.

As a senior Canadian politician, Mr. Layton offered business interests absolutely nothing with which to agree, but he conducted himself with acceptable decorum and the slightest trace of humor, and we sort-of didn’t mind him, in spite of everything.

“We actually didn’t mind him, sort-of. Not that much, anyway.” There is a sentimental epitaph that few other contemporary political figures will ever earn, or deserve, as much as Jack Layton.

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