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Layton's departure a game-changer

The sudden and sad departure of Jack Layton from the political stage is mostly bad news for the federal NDP, but it also comes with a cost to the B.C. NDP.

The sudden and sad departure of Jack Layton from the political stage is mostly bad news for the federal NDP, but it also comes with a cost to the B.C. NDP.

While a full, speedy recovery by Layton is obviously the best outcome in this situation - one that dwarfs all other considerations - the political ramifications of his leaving have to be examined.

If Layton does not return to his job as NDP leader (and it's hard to see him doing that any time soon after seeing his frail and gaunt appearance at the news conference where he announced he was fighting another form of cancer), the party then loses its Number 1 asset.

It was Layton's own high level of personal popularity that vaulted the party to a record number of seats, a breakthrough in Quebec and the achievement of official Opposition status.

But now the NDP has a near-anonymous interim leader and a caucus made up of a lot of political rookies. Perhaps more importantly, the balance of power within the caucus has swung towards Quebec and away from the party's historical roots in Western Canada and Ontario.

This caucus would have been a challenging one to manage for even a seasoned pro such as Layton. It will be that much harder for his successor (temporary or permanent) to carry on in the months ahead.

Will there be growing tensions between the Quebec wing and the rest of the caucus? Will any of the many rookie MPs make embarrassing mistakes?

Layton's sudden departure leaves a leadership void, and it's critical for the party to line up strongly behind interim leader Nycole Turmel.

The best thing the federal NDP has going for it is time. The next election is more than three years away, which is plenty of time for the party to regroup and plot a strategy that will allow it to build on its recent success.

It won't be easy - in fact it may well be impossible - and there may indeed be pressure building in the days ahead to begin merger talks with the depleted Liberal Party. If any signs of panic surface within the party, Turmel's hold on the job could weaken and messy internal divisions could emerge.

Layton's departure is a historical game-changer, and it will reverberate through the political scene for some time.

Oddly, Layton's leaving could have a more immediate impact on the provincial NDP, because an election will likely be called in this province within a year or so, and Layton would undoubtedly have been out here campaigning alongside NDP Adrian Dix.

Layton would have lent a credible, popular presence to an NDP campaign. His own personal popularity may have translated into just enough votes for the party to win some of the closer races.

Sadly, it looks like that's not going to happen.

I've been asked by several people whether, as a journalist, I think Layton should have been more forthcoming about his health issues during the election campaign.

That's not an easy question to answer.

A person's health problems are, of course, usually a matter of intense personal privacy. So should a politician or, more to the point, a political leader be treated differently on this question?

Some have compared Layton's situation to the one confronting anyone running to be president of the United States. Candidates there must subject themselves to intense health checkups.

But this comparison is, of course, ludicrous. Layton is not in charge of national security, with access to nuclear codes and the like.

A key point in this debate is that Layton was not really running to be prime minister. In reality, he was running to be the official Opposition leader, which carries with it no real power.

He was trying to take a political party to new heights and to propel it into unchartered waters. He wasn't about to run the entire country or be in a position to make far-reaching decisions affecting all Canadians.

Because of that, I think he was entitled to a pass when it came to answering personal questions about his health.

The stakes simply weren't big enough to warrant that kind of intrusion into his personal life.

We already delve too deeply into the personal lives of some of our public officials (the Internet and the blogosphere have made such intrusions more numerous and inappropriate).

This was not a case to push things even further.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global B.C.