Layton rallies his NDP troops

Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces an Official Opposition that is ready to fight to hold him to account, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Tuesday in his first address to his caucus since the May 2 election.
NDP Leader Jack Layton opens his arms as he is applauded by his new caucus following a speech on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 (Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces an Official Opposition that is ready to fight every day to hold him to account, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Tuesday in his first address to his caucus since the May 2 election.

Layton now leads a caucus that nearly tripled in size to 103 MPs and many of them are meeting each other for the first time Tuesday.

Layton acknowledged early on in his speech that his caucus is made up of MPs with experience and many that are brand new to the Parliament Hill scene.

"We have here — standing shoulder to shoulder — the experienced leaders of today, with decades of experience, and the young Canadian leaders of tomorrow, and of many years to come," Layton said.

His party includes Canada's youngest MP ever, 19-year-old Pierre-Luc Dusseault, and a number of other members under 30.

Layton told his caucus that Canadians gave them an important job to do, "to hold the Conservatives to account, and to propose practical solutions that will drive the agenda and the country forward."

Attacks Senate appointments

In his remarks, the new Official Opposition leader said the NDP will focus on working for Canadian families when Parliament begins its new session on June 2. Harper, meanwhile, is more focused on rewarding his friends, Layton said, referring to the Senate appointments announced last week by the prime minister.

"Stephen Harper’s very first post-election priority was to reward failed Conservative candidates with high-paying Senate appointments," Layton said. 

Fabian Manning and Larry Smith resigned their Senate seats to run in the May 2 election, lost, and were reappointed. Josée Verner, a former minister in Harper's cabinet, also lost her Quebec seat and will now have a place in the upper chamber.

Layton's party gained its Official Opposition status with the support of Quebec, and he acknowledged that in his speech. He said Quebecers voted for change, and that his party will represent their interests in Parliament. Fifty-nine of the NDP's MPs are from Quebec.

Layton took questions from reporters on a range of topics following his speech and was pressed to explain his position on Quebec sovereignty and whether he would accept the results of a referendum should another one be held. This was an issue during the campaign and with an increased support base in Quebec, is likely one that will continue to surface.

"Our goal is not to see another referendum, our goal is to create the winning conditions for Canada, in Quebec. That's our preference," Layton said. He said the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on referendum results is the appropriate framework to follow, if necessary. "We have now a very strong deputation of members of Parliament, who are part of a federalist party working to create those winning conditions," he said.

Layton also commented on one of the first actions Harper is expected to take when his majority government gets underway — eliminating the per-vote subsidy for political parties. Layton said it would eventually mean donated money, or "big money" would become most important in politics and it would create an unlevel playing field.

"We think it's a step backwards for democracy," the NDP leader said, and he again criticized Harper for filling Senate vacancies. He said it's hypocritical for the prime minister to appoint senators whose salaries are paid for by taxpayers but not support public financing of political parties.

Layton was asked about foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan, Syria and the Middle East. He reiterated the NDP's position on Afghanistan, saying Canadian troops should be coming home, and "Canada should be playing a completely different kind of role, once again, using our expertise to bring sides together."

"We've talked about the need to talk to elements of the insurgency to try to find a resolution here, and more and more people seem to agree that that would actually be a very good idea," said Layton.

He said Canada should impose sanctions against Syria and that Canada should offer help with any discussions between Israel and Palestinian authorities on disputed boundaries. Layton said the goal should be to seek borders that are acceptable to both sides in the ongoing conflict. 

"We want to see the Harper government putting forward the proposition that Canada will be willing to help to make those discussions possible," he said.

The NDP will continue their meetings Wednesday and will assemble in what is new territory for the NDP — the Railway Room on Parliament Hill, the room designated for weekly Official Opposition meetings. All of the parties hold caucus meetings every Wednesday.

The Liberals are also meeting Wednesday, and they are continuing talks on choosing an interim leader. The Conservatives have yet to meet since they won their majority mandate and are scheduled to do so next week, just ahead of Parliament beginning its new session on June 2.

The Railway Room is a long way from where the NDP met before the May 2 election. As the fourth party in the House of Commons, the NDP's caucus meetings weren't even on Parliament Hill. They were held down the street at the old Photography Museum because of limited space on the Hill during renovations.

Tuesday's meeting will be the first opportunity many of the re-elected New Democrats will have to meet their new colleagues. The majority of the caucus is made up of rookie MPs, some of whom met each other last week at an orientation session for newcomers from all parties.

Layton may announce his shadow cabinet at the end of the caucus sessions Wednesday, or, later in the week. 

RECAP: Jack Layton speech kicks off NDP's first caucus as Official Opposition