Layton vows to put debate back in Canadian politics

By CBC News Online staff
Published January 26th 2003 in CBC News Online

TORONTO - Jack Layton has promised to use his new job as federal NDP leader to help voters distinguish between his party and what he called a "Liberal and Alliance collaboration."

At the close of the New Democrats' convention Sunday, he said the government and the Official Opposition have developed similar policies, "essentially eliminating real debate from the terrain of Canadian politics."

He warned there would be no improvement if former finance minister Paul Martin were to replace Jean Chrétien as prime minister.

"When you strip away Paul Martin's rhetoric, and look at his actual record, it is in lock-step with Alliance on virtually every issue," he said.

"On tax cuts, they agree. On housing, they agree, on private health care, they agree," Layton said.

The NDP holds only 14 seats, two above the minimum required for official party status. And none of those 14 belongs to Layton.

After a 20-year-old career in municipal politics, he said he'll quit his job as a Toronto city councilor on Monday and direct his caucus from the sidelines.

Layton said he wants to wait for the next federal election to run for a seat in the House of Commons.

"While I won't be the one standing up and asking the questions in the House, I will be exchanging our views in the corridors, which are rather strong ones and rather different from the current government," he said.

Iraq top priority

He said his first priority will be to argue against a possible war in Iraq. After that, he'd like to talk about environment issues and public health care.

Layton vowed to transform politics in Canada by raising the level of debate, and by working to change the way governments are elected.

"If the NDP holds the balance of power in a minority government in the next election, our first condition will be a national referendum on proportional representation so we can change politics in this country forever," he said.

Some argue Canada's system of "first past the post" elections skews the democratic will of the voters. Proportional representation would allocate seats in Parliament based on the percentage of the popular vote won by each party.

Layton, 52, won the NDP leadership race in a stunning first-ballot victory Saturday. He beat five other candidates, including two veteran members of Parliament.

He said he was raised with an insider's knowledge of national politics and was confident he and caucus would be able to work out their new roles.

"My father served in Parliament (as a Conservative). I've got his parliamentary pin in my pocket," he said. "I'm looking forward to putting it on very, very soon."