NDP caucus backs Turmel as interim leader

The NDP caucus is backing Jack Layton's choice of MP Nycole Turmel to fill in for him while he battles cancer.
Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel speaks to reporters after being endorsed as interim leader by the NDP Parliamentary caucus. Later, deputy leaders Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davies take questions from the media. 14:32

NDP MP Nycole Turmel says she is "overwhelmed" by the support of her caucus colleagues to have her fill in for party leader Jack Layton while he battles cancer.

The rookie parliamentarian was unanimously backed by her fellow New Democratic MPs to be their interim leader at a special summer caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on Wednesday. The meeting was prompted by Layton's surprise announcement Monday that he is taking time off to fight a second bout of cancer.

At the news conference where Layton delivered the stunning news, he said he was recommending Turmel to take on his duties as leader of the Official Opposition and that he is aiming to be back to work by Sept. 19, when Parliament resumes.

Now that the caucus has confirmed Layton's recommendation, Turmel's endorsement goes to the NDP's federal council for a final decision Thursday.

"I'm overwhelmed by the support of the caucus today. I'm also ready to take on the job as long as the federal council accepts the recommendation of the caucus," Turmel said. "We have a strong caucus, we have a strong leader in Jack Layton. We want to give him the time to rest to come back in September."

Turmel did not take questions from reporters.

Libby Davies and Thomas Mulcair, both deputy leaders, said the party is united and feeling strong.

"For 2½ hours we've had a wonderful discussion supporting each other and our leader," Davies said.

Caucus meeting 'emotional'

NDP MP Peter Julian said all but seven of the party's 103 MPs were at Wednesday's meeting.

"It was emotional, there's no doubt. We're all dealing with what Jack announced on Monday, but also very determined," he told host Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics.

Layton addressed his MPs, many of whom learned his news by watching his press conference on Monday, via Skype from Toronto. Davies said her leader is renowned for his hope and optimism and he expressed his positive attitude again Wednesday when talking about his latest health challenge.

Layton was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009 and was recently diagnosed with a second form of the disease, though he hasn't said what kind. He also had hip surgery earlier this year for a hairline fracture.

New Democratic MPs have voiced sadness and surprise at their leader's health setback, coming just months after the party's historic election gains in the May 2 general election. But Davies said morale is high and the caucus is determined to work hard while Layton is away.

"Everybody feels very energized and very invigorated and very committed about what it is that we take on," she said.

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent told Solomon the caucus assumes Layton will be back as expected in September. He said Turmel will be given all the scope of a leader, and that he expects she'll be consulting with Layton. Broadbent said he'll be available to Turmel if she wants advice.

"I'm there and that's what Nycole has to know.… It's her call," he said.

Final decision Thursday

Party president Brian Topp, who spoke to Layton ahead of Wednesday's caucus meeting, told reporters that his voice was strong and that he had asked Topp to convey his gratitude for the thousands of messages he's received from Canadians over the last two days.

Topp said the NDP's federal council aims to announce the interim leader by the end of the day Thursday. Topp left little doubt, however, that Turmel will be named Layton's temporary replacement.

He said he hasn't heard anyone question Layton's pick and described Turmel as an "impressive woman" who has a long history with the NDP.

Turmel, the MP for the Quebec riding of Hull–Aylmer, located across the river from Ottawa, is "already a well-known public figure in the province of Quebec and is about to become a well-known national figure," Topp said.

The former public service union leader is one of many new MPs in the NDP caucus, but she quickly made a positive impression and was unanimously elected caucus chair.

Long-term speculation

NDP officials fielded a raft of questions Wednesday about what would happen beyond Sept. 19 if Layton is not well enough to return to his seat in the Commons opposite Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Right now, today, we're focused on getting together, showing our solidarity and support for our leader and each other," deputy leader Davies said.

Pressed to say whether there was discussion at the caucus meeting about whether Turmel would continue as interim leader if Layton isn't ready to come back in the fall, she said only that the party "will go through the rest of the summer, we'll prepare for the fall session and then obviously we'll make an assessment about where things are at."

Davies said that the caucus wants Layton to focus on his health, and that when he comes back will be up to him and his doctors.

Topp also answered queries about what would happen if Layton can't resume his leadership duties and about the possibility of MPs jockeying to replace him. He said that he expects people in the party to be ambitious and to want to play a leading role. But Layton is the most popular leader the NDP has ever had, he noted, adding that he doesn't think any MPs want to see each other interfere with Layton's goals for the party. 

"I would be astonished if there were egregious or unhelpful moves by members of the team, and anybody who did actions … in the months to come would probably regret it," Topp said.

St. John's MP Jack Harris acknowledged that many view Layton as the one and only face of the NDP, but like his colleagues he emphasized that their leader has built a solid caucus over the years.

"Jack Layton has been the brand of the party, but he's also produced a very strong team," he said. "It's up to us to put extra effort into ensuring that that continues."

Layton, the MP for the riding of Toronto–Danforth, is receiving treatment at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital.

Liveblog: NDP caucus

Mobile-friendly text feed available here