The book that Jack wrote
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 May 2004)

Jack Layton, the federal leader of the New Democrats since January, 2003, must believe that the right policies will somehow make the NDP important again. But which policies will do the job? In his book, Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians (Key Porter), published today, he discusses what he's come up with so far.

It's a volume few will buy and fewer will read. Still, those who manage to trudge through it will look upon Layton with compassion. He's become famous in Ottawa as a publicity hound who haunts the corridors of Parliament, leaping toward every TV crew in sight, but a book demands something more than off-the-cuff remarks. Given 288 pages to fill, he's forced to explain what he would advocate if elected to Parliament at the head of a healthy NDP caucus.

He's not quite up to the job. Layton in print differs from Layton on TV. The guy with the moustache, impressively confident if too glib to be quite plausible, can't be found in this book. In his place we meet a good-hearted, simple-minded chap, a writer without skill and a man without humour.

He has few policies of any interest, and for the most part he circles aimlessly around some notions he's read about, picked up at conferences, or used in local politics. When he has ideas, they conflict with each other. Consider bicycles. A former member of Toronto city council's left wing, he loves bicycles, as opposed to cars; he reminds us that traffic accidents kill 2,425 people a day around the world. His idea? Ottawa should declare bicycles "advanced technology vehicles" and rebate the GST on every one of them. "Let's start rewarding good behaviour."

But wait. Layton can't forget the Canadian Auto Workers. Ottawa must help them too, because the vicious World Trade Organization struck down the U.S.-Canada Auto Pact, under which "our powerful auto sector grew dramatically." Now he likes cars. He wants Ottawa to revitalize the industry by promoting "new, cleaner cars" (he'd give GST rebates for them, too). In Layton's dreams, workers ride bikes to their jobs at the auto plant.

There's nothing remarkable in either of those notions, and in that way they resemble the rest of the book. Readers, searching desperately for a soupcon of ingenuity, will discover that Layton provides, at best, traces of eccentricity. He has no defence policy, but in a mysterious passage on page 16 he seems to say that we're spending too much on the military; if he means that, he's at least original.

He also takes an inventive approach to prescription drugs. After complaining about drug prices, he asks whether we really need "all these high-tech drugs." Living with his wife Olivia Chow and her mother, he's discovered the cures produced by "10,000 years" of Chinese wisdom. "It's true that the teas brewed by my mother-in-law taste terrible, but that's not reason enough to avoid them." We Canadians should be "facilitating the availability of traditional medicine." How will that notion be received in the universities, traditional NDP bastions? Though he makes a slighting reference to double-blind testing by drug companies, he doesn't quite come out against science. But my guess is that most doctors (and scientists) will read him that way.

"Facilitating the availability," by the way, is a fair sample of Layton's nimble phrasing. He also likes words that appear to say more than they actually do, such as "proactive" and "epicentre." And he keeps falling into cliche. How should we be thinking? "Outside the box." What's democracy about? "People, not money." How clear does he want to be? "Absolutely." Where do most new directions come from? "The grassroots."

Layton apparently has no cultural policy, an oddity for a New Democrat. The CBC gets exactly one sentence in the book, which is one more than any other cultural institution. Even more surprising, he has nothing you could call an economic policy. Last year Leo Panitch of Canadian Dimension magazine asked him, "Do you still see yourself as a socialist, Jack?" Layton replied: "Socialist? I'm proud to call myself a socialist. But I don't go around shouting it out."

That understates the case. Far from shouting, Layton utters that word so quietly that it's inaudible. Neither "socialist" nor "socialism" appears in the book's index. Those words belong to a past he's abandoned.

Layton tells a few stories about his family history, but otherwise his book suggests that he lacks any sense of history. About all his readers will learn of his party's tradition is that it brought socialized medicine to Canada. Recent events don't much interest him either. The NDP held power in Ontario from 1990 to 1995 under Premier Bob Rae, but Rae gets exactly one vague paragraph in Layton's book.

On economics, Layton has two points to make. He believes both corporations and globalization (created by corporations) are bad. And he likes local action, much more than national action: Compost your trash, ride your bike, build some affordable housing, and you're on the way to a better world. Though not necessarily on the way to Parliament.

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