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Mark Bourrie

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Jack Layton's Got a Great Act, But Have We Seen the Whole Show?

Posted: 05/27/11 09:00 AM ET

It was indeed strange.

There he was. The party leader, reading vacuous comments from three teleprompters, with a wall of MPs behind him as a backdrop.

The MPs cheered at appropriate times as the leader worked his way through the boilerplate. They gave him the obligatory standing ovation and cheered his name.

There was nothing in the speech. It was happy talk. It was just warmed-over air.

The entire speech was made to a wall of TV cameras, not to the MPs, not to what are so cruelly called "ordinary Canadians." And when it was over, the leader was whisked from the room by nervous little men in suits.

This is Jack Layton, the 2011 model.

And this is how Stephen Harper, the most powerful prime minister since the Second World War, will be "opposed." There will be a four-year TV show pitting Layton against Harper. But substance? We haven't seen anything yet.

Maybe we never will.

Jack Layton is acting like a prime minister in waiting, but he is going to be waiting an awfully long time if he thinks he's going to ride the TV waves to power. Layton is going to have to make real policy decisions, work very hard, and somehow draw Canadians' interest back into politics if he is to have any chance of taking on Harper for the top spot or even holding his job as leader of the opposition past 2015.

Layton has always been a showman, an outsider, a second-place man. He did little but disrupt when he was on Toronto's city council. The people of that city chose to elect a complete non-entity to the mayor's office rather than give power to Layton. So Layton came to Ottawa.

Even as a potential kingmaker in three minority parliaments, Layton left as few footprints in Ottawa in the past seven years as he did during those years on Toronto council. Despite all of his talk about changing Ottawa, smart money says he's likely to be a footnote, the answer to a trivia question, in 10 years.

Being opposition leader up against a new majority government is hard. And against Harper, it's going to be extra tough. Here's a guy who just won a majority government after it came out that a senior advisor had taken up with a young ex-hooker and was trying to peddle influence; after being censured by Parliament for beaching the rights of MPs; who told reporters who paid $100,000 apiece to cover the campaign that they could fight among themselves to see who could ask just four questions a day (local reporters got the fifth one).

This is a PM holds himself out as an economist and denied, in 2008, that we were headed into recession. This is the same guy who swore he's never run a deficit.

And he's a prime minister who has no shame in putting three defeated candidates into the Senate, where they join his campaign manager, his former press secretary, and lots of other cronies.
Shame Stephen Harper? Good luck with that, Jack.

Layton gave his speech Tuesday at an orientation session for his caucus. The old Reading Room in the Centre Block was crowded with MPs and their staffers. The NDP caucus does seem like an interesting group of people -- students, actors, tradespeople, young, older, men, women, Native and new Canadians, Anglo and Franco. They might be new blood, but are they capable of scrutinizing the government's annual spending of $240 billion dollars and the work of some 300,000 public servants?

Their staffers seemed even younger than the new MPs, and I'll be very surprised if they have the research and analysis depth to do much more than read the daily papers and craft queries for question period.

And when it comes to assessing major legislation and giving it responsible, informed criticism, good luck with that, kids.

Maybe the country needs a break. Perhaps "old wolf eyes," as one of my press gallery friends calls Harper, will become the Canadian Solon, governing wisely and kindly for the benefit of all. Or maybe he'll just settle all of those scores he's been carrying around in a little black notebook in his jacket pocket.

My bet is on the latter. And I suspect he's not too worried about Jack Layton and his teleprompter full of platitudes. If he did, we would have seen the attack ads by now.