Friday, June 13, 2008

How Layton persuaded Harper to do the right thing

Those who heard the Prime Minister’s apology this week were astonished by his gratuitously non-partisan gesture in crediting Jack Layton with bringing this important day about.

If the statement rang louder than most it’s because the walls of the House of Commons are not accustomed to such magnanimousness, particularly of late. Owing to the Bernier resignation, the reignited internecine warfare in the Liberal ranks, near-motionless public domain polls, and MPs anxious to return to their ridings for the summer, the House has lately descended, particularly on the scandal-obsessed Liberal and Bloc sides, into rank partisanship.

So to have the PM begin his remarks saying “I do want to thank my colleague, the leader of the New Democratic Party. For the past year and a half, he has spoken to me with regularity and great conviction on the need for this apology. His advice, given across party lines and in confidence, has been persuasive and has been greatly appreciated” was surprising and begged for explanation.

The back story is told in today’s Globe.

Mr. Layton got involved after Mr. Harper invited the NDP Leader to his office on the third floor of Parliament's Centre Block. Mr. Layton said in an interview yesterday that he believes a lengthy discussion they had about the Chinese head tax influenced the Prime Minister. He invoked the campaign of his wife, MP Olivia Chow, who fought for an apology for Chinese Canadians, only to see most of them die before an apology finally came in the first year of the Conservative government.

Former residential school students are now dying by the week, if not the day, Mr. Layton said, urging the Prime Minister to apologize as soon as possible.

"Having participated in the Chinese apology, when I spoke to him about the impact of it, I think he could understand the truth of what I was saying because he witnessed it himself," Mr. Layton said.

As has been said here before, leadership is about vision and the ability to inspire, both of which Layton demonstrated in this instance. He instinctively recognized the need for this important guesture to begin healing with Aboriginal people, and more importantly in a town where good ideas grow old, succeeded in persuading the Prime Minister to do it.

Cynics will say that Harper was seeking political advantage in taking Layton’s advice and even for thanking him publicly. Let them bleat. That’s just politics as usual, almost none of which was on display on a historic day.

Layton’s strength as a leader continues to be his impressive ability to reach out to people, pull them out of their trenches and inspire them to do the right thing. It's what he did for years in Toronto; it's what he did with the NDP budget amendment; it's what he did with the "breakthrough bill" on climate change; it's what he did to get his Climate Change Accountability Act passed; and it's what he did for this week's historic apology.

It's more of that kind of leadership that our country needs for a change.

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