Brian Topp, leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.
Quebec City is well served by its rooftop revolving hotel restaurant, otherwise a relic of 1970s architectural gimmickery. Brian Topp was indifferent about the plate in front of him as he spoke with a mixture of awe and bitterness about the NDP's fortunes in not just Quebec but Central Canada. He looked out the window. We were facing the mouth of the St. Lawrence, with the National Assembly coming into view.
It was the NDP's 2006 annual policy convention, taking place in Quebec City, hostile ground for the NDP, and chosen by Jack Layton for that reason. From the time he took the leadership of an NDP by then in its 74th year, Layton was determined to make an party breakthrough in his native province.
"They'll never take us seriously until we we make big progress in Quebec," Layton had told me some years earlier, when I commiserated with him about the studied indifference of media bigfoots like Chantal Hebert and Jeffery Simpson toward Layton and his party.
Which you really had to wonder about. My problem with Layton was that he stood for too many things. He wasn't focused. An anti-poverty activist, a gay rights advocate, a champion of affordable housing, a scold about the vulnerability of Central Canadian manufacturing jobs for lack of an industrial policy worthy of the name, an early opponent of our Afghan combat mission, and of society's indfferent regard for spousal abuse, successful ultimately in ramping up the installation of street and parking garage lighting in the city's darkest corners.
But man, he was prescient. Eventually supreme courts in three provinces struck down discrimination against gay marriage as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Chretien made same-sex marriage the law of the land. Those vulnerable manufacturing jobs did in fact disappear - about 200,000 of them in Ontario alone - a decade after Layton first sounded the alarm. Police responding to "domestics" no longer take anyone's word for it that a woman covered with bruises fell down the stairs - so even she says, fearing the loss of income the arrest of her partner would mean - and lay charges anyway, mindful of a Layton-founded White Ribbon campaign that raised awareness about that most common of scourges. And the Afghan mission John Manley talked Chretien into hastily launching to make nice with Bush after staying clear of the Iraq fiasco has turned out to be a cruel fiasco, costing more than 100 Canadian soldiers' lives and far more Afghan civilian lives without achieving anything noble - the fate of every outside power to ever attempt occupying that congeries of feuding warlords and prodigious poppy fields that is a country in name only.
Turned out, on May 2, that standing for all those things paid off as so many Canadians felt they had a stake in what Layton was on about. That same day, the Grits' learned a painful lesson about appearing not to stand for anything.
Layton had pretty much given up on the Star's Hebert, whom he regarded as too much a Quebec nationalist to look favorably on national political leaders not resident in Quebec. Layton had of course long since decamped from his ex-urban Montreal childhood home of Hudson, Que. to Toronto, becoming so immersed in Hogtown's politics - to the point of running unsuccessfully for mayor - that a Layton-led NDP did indeed seem an unlikely representative of Quebeckers in Parliament. As the party had been since its inception.
In my one meeting with Jack after the historic May 2 triumph of no less than 59 Quebec seats, and 103 seats in total - "the greatest home run in Canadian political history," one of my Tory neighbors and friends readily concedes - Layton told me "I finally convinced them I'm from Quebec. It took years and years for that to get through, that I am one of them. And then we won."
That milestone was five years off when Topp pondered the mystery of Quebec. And for that matter, Ontario, where the socialist party held just a smattering of seats, and only three in the GTA - including that of the party leader and that of his wife, Olivia Chow.
"In the West, we don't have horns and a tail," Topp was saying, still watching the skyline as the sun finally set. Topp had worked seven years as deputy chief of staff to Roy Romanow when Romanow was NDP premier of Saskatchewan, birthplace of Medicare, from 1993 to 2000. "It's a two-party system, for the most part," Topp said by way of explaining how the NDP had routinely formed governments in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the modern era, the NDP always has been the only alternative, always the government-in-waiting when not the government itself.
By the late 2000s, the NDP had formed governments in Ontario and Nova Scotia, as well, proving its viability at the ballot box in half the provinces. Yet never had it come remotely close to governing at the federal level, save for the oh-so-close coalition negotiations that Topp was in the thick of in Novmeber 2008. Ultimately, the Grits chose not to play - no surprise given the traditionally much greater animosity between the socialists and Grits than the NDP and Tories. That year the Grits threw away that chance of returning to power, sealing their fate by marching solo behind Michael Ignatieff, one of the least-well-chosen party leaders in Canadian history. Down the street from the Quebec City Loews Hotel where Topp and I were dining, the 2006 Grits were holding one of the series of leadership debates that would culiminate in another debacle, the elevation of Stephane Dion as their leader.
As we sat there, Topp reminded me of an ace feature writer and friend at the Globe and Mail in the 1980s who habitually waited until about 4 p.m. to sit himself before a computer and turn out 3,000 words of beautifully crafted prose. Those of us with routine news reports to file got cracking on them by 11 a.m. and in some cases were still toiling on them after Arthur filed his majestical pieces by 5:15 p.m. Topp had his leader's keynote speech to draft and then rewrite, perhaps twice, at the instruction of Layton, Chow and two other top strategiests. And here he was toying with dessert, his laptop up and running in his hotel room like a sort of getaway car ready to pounce. But that could wait just a bit longer.
"In the all-important social-justice issues, Quebeckers are far more aligned with the NDP than any party," Topp said. "No one believes us, but we are working this province hard. We absolutely must have Quebec to be viable. It won't be long before we stun everyone by winning it."
With that, Topp pushed back his chair and headed for the elevators to draft one of the best political speeches I've heard - gracious to the national Grits assembled in town, enumerating a half dozen core policy issues without wonkery, slipping in Jack's requisite self-deprecation, and keeping the French parts long enough to be substantive and brief enough to keep the mostly unilingual anglophones in the audience from getting restless. It was a tour de force - a quiet one, not a barn-burner - but perfectly suited to its time and place. And every word of its sounded like Jack.
I'm a competitive fellow. I aim to be the best at whatever I do, no matter how hopeless that goal might be. At about the one-third mark in Layton's address I decided I would not be joining his speechwriting shop, after all. Anything I wrote would fall short of Topp, and sensibily would be passed onto him to fix. And Lord knows he was fast enough to do so, and between strategy sessions at that.
Topp has long been associated with political success, in a way that Bob (Shrummy) Shrum is indelibly associated with failure, holding the record for managing the largest number of botched U.S. presidential campaigns.
The fluently bilingual Montreal native and McGill grad helped get Phil Edmunston, a political novelty item (author of the Lemon-Aid car guides), elected as the NDP's first-ever Quebec MP in 1990, then left Quebec to work with Edmonston in Ottawa. It's been all-good since.
Topp, 51, helped keep Romanow in power after his government was reduced to a minority by striking a coalition with the Liberals. He ran Layton-led NDP campaigns that increased the NDP seat count with each successive election, finding time along the way to assist on the 2003 Toronto mayoralty campaign that first brought David Miller to office. His sure touch already has been recruited by Adrian Dix, who signed Topp to manage the B.C. NDP's campaign this fall.
Topp's day job all this time has been in labor, with the Credit Union Central Canada and then longtime executive director of ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists).
He is, I think, the obvious best choice to next lead the NDP.
As noted frequently in the succession speculation since Layton's death, Topp has always worked behind the scenes. But few Canadians knew of Layton,either, when he became NDP leader, and he now is among the most beloved figures in our history. True, Topp would be a second Torontonian in a row to take the leadership. But his Western credentials are substantial, as are his Quebec roots and principal role in the Quebec breakthrough May 2. And Topp is a moderate. He's passionate about social justice but in a way calculated not to scare the children.
Thomas Mulcair can take the lion's share of credit for the Quebec inroads. But he is not ready for prime time, having a volcanic temper and a proclivity for gaffes. Neither Olivia Chow nor deputy leader Libby Davies, currently mooted as successors, is bilingual.
Earlier this year, the NDP by acclamation chose Topp as party president. They should, and I think will, give him the nod in the upcoming leadership race. He doesn't have a seat, but then neither did Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien or Layton himself when they became party leaders. And, sadly, a seat has just opened up in Toronto-Danforth.
What most intrigues me about a Topp leadership is his coalition-building experience. He's right that our traditional three-party system (excluding the Bloc and Greens) has effectively kept the NDP from power federally. Topp was sufficiently engaged in the 2008 gambit of forging a coalition with the Grits to write an illuminating book on the episode, How We Almost Gave The Tories The Boot: The Inside Story Behind the Coalition.
At 103 seats, assuming the now vacant Toronto-Danforth remains safe for the party, the NDP remains far distant from power - 52 seats shy of a majority, to be precise. Only once has the CCF/NDP won more than that many seats or more, last May. Indeed, 52 seats is close to the high-water mark for the Bloc when it owned Quebec. As for the Grits, rebuilding the party - which has lost seats in each of the past three elections - from their current 34 ridings will be quite a chore. "Strategic voters" intent on ousting the Tories now will likely vote NDP, given its relative proximity to power compared with the Liberals.
A merger of the parties makes for 137 seats, just 18 ridings short of forming a majority government. That would require, say, a pickup of only 7 new seats in each of the West and Ontario, 2 in Quebec and 2 in Atlantic Canada. Very doable.
And it's not like the Grits aren't tempted. Interim leader Bob Rae's immediate reaction to the epic May 2 Liberal collapse was to speculate about a merger. Jean Chretien and erstwhile leadership candidate Denis Coderre have warmly embraced a combo. The hard reality for Grits, as Warren Kinsella noted during the "orange surge" prior to the balloting, is that the NDP might no longer feel the need for taking in the Grits.
But progressives need a merger. So does the country, now governed by a party that commanded just 40% popular approval May 2, the majority 60% of Canadians having opted for progressive parties. It was Layton's over-arching ambition, as he told me more than once, to remove the Grits from the political scene, by merger if possible, by crushing them at the polls if necessary. That task has been largely accomplished, Canada's former Natural Governing Party having been reduced to less than three dozen seats - an historic low.
Whatever it is the Grits have been selling these past few elections, Canadians have not been buying. That was most powerfully clear May 2 when Bloc defectors shifted - en masse, as Quebeckers are wont to do - not back to the Grits, as in most elections, or the Tories, as in 1984 and 1988, but to the unknown, untested, even alien NDP. That's how strong the NDP appeal has become in Quebec, and how irrelevant the Liberals are regarded there.
Canada is a progressive nation. Its instincts are civility, mutual accommodation and the well-being of the entire Canadian community. The Tory strategy, infected by Karl Rove's playbook, is a narrow, focused appeal to selective groups in the country. In no civilized nation would a Kelowna Accord that finally came close to justice for aboriginal peoples be scrapped by an incoming government on ideological whim. But then, Canada's First Nations are not part of Harper's Canada. In no civilized community would majority opinion stand for libertarian fear of privacy violation destroy the census and Statscan's reputation as one of the best statistics-gathering agencies in the world. Are we to be ruled by libertarians? Canadians in the majority say no. They aren't buying what the Tories are selling, either.
"Why did we ever have the audacity to hope?" a friend wrote me recently, on the fall in favor of Barack Obama. I could only respond that without the audacity to hope the Jews would not have found sanctuary in the Promised Land, the Wright brothers and Banting and Best would have forsaken their experiments, and Canada would not exist. I do have the audacity to hope that Canadians will have a clear choice between reactionary and progressive governance. Between governance afraid of its own shadow, and bold, persistent experimentation to create the world's most caring society.
The most expeditious route to a more caring society is a federal NDP government, and the best prospect of that is an NDP led by Brian Topp.
At least, that's how I'll be voting.
Journalists at credible news organizations are discouraged from or forbidden to take political party membership, and certainly cannot be active in political organizations. There are countless good reasons for that. And so I've abided that rule. But I am a card-carrying NDPer, to my chagrin.
Jack Layton might have been aware of that rule when he nonetheless sold me a party membership in an east-end Toronto washroom several years ago. I was, shall we say, preoccupied. And this man larger than life turned on me, having strategically done his business faster than I, and pushed a membership card into my right arm. "David, we can't go on meeting like this unless we're on the same team." I protested of course, as best I could, craning my neck to talk. Jack just kept talking over me until I signed the damned card mostly in order to get out of the washroom.
"Uh, David," I heard Layton calling as I strode back to our pool table, "that'll be ten dollars. These aren't free, you know." Suddenly I remembered Jack's unofficial career as an auctioneer without equal, raising probably more than million dollars for the NDP over the years. I'd seen him in action, in church halls and banquet rooms above dim sum emporia, unloading the most hideous apparel and furniture onto party donors of all walks of life. What made me think I'd know Jack for 20-odd years without him someday making an impression on my wallet?
Election signs and TV spots aren't free either, I know.
But still, talk about audacity.