NDP caucus lines up behind Turmel

New Democrats are vowing to use ailing leader Jack Layton’s leave of absence to show their party is more than a one-man show.

New Democrat MP Nycole Turmel sits in the audience at the NDP Federal Council meeting Thursday in Ottawa.

New Democrat MP Nycole Turmel sits in the audience at the NDP Federal Council meeting Thursday in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — New Democrats are vowing to use ailing leader Jack Layton’s leave of absence to show their party is more than a one-man show.

Team, team, team. That was the refrain as New Democrat MPs gathered Wednesday to choose a temporary replacement for Layton, who is battling a second bout with cancer.

But even as they insisted the party is more than the leader, they unanimously deferred to Layton’s recommended choice for interim leader, rookie Quebec MP Nycole Turmel.

And there were signs that Layton, the glue that binds his newly enlarged, disparate caucus together, will continue to pull the strings from his sick bed.

He attended Wednesday’s caucus meeting via a video call from his home in Toronto and addressed his MPs both at the start and end of the gathering.

MPs described the meeting as “highly emotional,” with some tears, but said Layton inspired them with a message of hope and optimism. They said his voice sounded stronger than the raspy croak with which the emaciated leader delivered his surprise announcement Monday that he’s taking a leave of absence to fight an unspecified new form of cancer.

“I guess it was a continuation of what all of us as Canadians felt when we watched him on TV (on Monday) — the mixed emotions, the pride, the worry, the confidence, fear,” said Hamilton MP David Christopherson, who referred to Layton as a friend and brother.

“There was a lot of reality checks. We know what he’s up against. He knows what he’s up against. But he’s so optimistic … This is the fight of his life, round two. He won round one, he’ll win round two.”

Layton has been battling prostate cancer for 18 months and is still recovering from surgery in the spring to repair a hip fracture. Despite the new — and evidently more serious — health challenge, he’s vowed to be back on the job by the time Parliament resumes on Sept. 19.

However, Christopherson said the primary message from caucus to Layton was: “Jack, don’t come back before you’re ready, please.

“We know what he’s like. He’ll worry about us, he’ll worry about the caucus, he’ll worry about the country, he’ll worry about everything and we were urging him, please, just this once, worry about you.”

Anne McGrath, Layton’s chief of staff, conceded it will be hard for Layton to completely disengage.

“He’ll be watching and he’ll keep in touch,” she said, calling her inability to persuade Layton to take holidays “one of my biggest failings as chief of staff.”

Whereas interim leaders generally appoint their own staff, Turmel will rely on Layton’s existing inner circle. Her role appears to be no more than that of a caretaker or, as Christopherson put it, “she’s just keeping the spot warm until Jack can return.”

Edmonton MP Linda Duncan went so far as to suggest the interim leadership is meaningless.

“I’m not going to comment on that. That’s irrelevant. Jack’s the leader.”

Turmel, a long-time union leader with deep roots in the party, said she was “overwhelmed” by the unanimous support she received from caucus. Her appointment must still be ratified by the NDP’s national council, which is to meet Thursday.

For all that Layton remains ostensibly in control, New Democrats are cognizant that his health battle may keep him out of the public eye longer than he intends, perhaps even permanently. Hence, the main message MPs tried to convey Wednesday is that the NDP is more than its leader.

“The party is bigger than any one person because that’s the way Jack built it,” said Winnipeg MP Pat Martin.

“Jack has built a team,” echoed Christopherson. “As much as Jack sort of appears to the Canadian people as a bit of a one-man band because he’s the face of the party, the fact of the matter is that we have a very, very strong caucus with a lot of strong leaders within.”

Windsor MP Joe Comartin said New Democrats are “absolutely determined to continue to work together as a team. We know that’s what he would want.

“In fact, the health problems that Jack is having are going to encourage us to be even stronger.”

The sudden emphasis on team is in stark contrast to the spring election campaign, which focused almost exclusively on the leader. Layton has consistently been more popular than his party and New Democrats rode his personal appeal to a historic breakthrough on May 2, capturing 103 seats and official Opposition status.

In Quebec in particular, voters swung massively to the NDP largely because of Layton, not his party, his policies or his candidates. Indeed, some of the 59 New Democrats elected in Quebec were complete unknowns in their ridings, in some cases never having even visited the regions they now represent.

With Layton abruptly sidelined, the party’s lofty goal of forming the government in the next election could be even harder to accomplish. The NDP could find itself struggling to hang on to its gains from the last election, much less build on them.

Party president Brian Topp said Layton’s absence provides an opportunity to prove that the party’s electoral success was more than a flash-in-the-pan based solely on the 61-year-old leader’s folksy charm.

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