Jane Taber's Ottawa

Layton ready to hit the campaign trail, bad hip and all

The Globe and Mail

The staples came out of Jack Layton's left hip Thursday - just in time for Friday's defeat of the Harper minority government and a five-week election campaign that will not only test the NDP Leader's skills on the hustings but his health.

"Yippee!" he said after meeting with his doctors, who say the wound from the surgery on his hip is healing well. That, and the fact that he was able to climb a flight of stairs in the Centre Block, have made him confident that he'll be able to tackle the stairs of his campaign plane, and bump across rural parts of the country on his bus seeking the hearts and votes of Canadians.

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It was the 60-year-old Mr. Layton who held the fate of the Harper government in his hands and, despite his fractured hip and fight with prostate cancer, effectively ignited an election with his surprise announcement Tuesday that he would not support the budget. Now the unlikely slayer is throwing himself into the political battle, infirmities and all.

"My hip is so strong now it will outlive me," he joked in an interview this week with The Globe and Mail.

More seriously, he said the hip injury and the cancer diagnosis weren't about to sideline him - he saw what happened to his father.

Robert Layton, who had served in Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative cabinet, resigned from the House of Commons just before the 1993 election after his prostate cancer diagnosis.

"He quit his work thinking that was pretty much what he had to do," recalled Mr. Layton. "I just watched - my Dad not being at work, not being engaged. You know it was just not the same guy. His quality of life really deteriorated because he wasn't engaged."

Mr. Layton, who walks with a crutch and looks a little pale, dismisses that disengagement as old-fashioned thinking. "Nowadays the modern attitude toward cancer is … you get out there and you tackle it and you stay involved," he said.

Yet he goes to the same doctor who treated his father. It made sense, he said, as he used to accompany his dad to appointments. His father died in 2002, reportedly from complications of Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer.

Mr. Layton calls himself a "cancer survivor," explaining: "You never really say you're cured. I'm a survivor."

Asked whether the cancer has spread, he said the doctors have told him that his PSA level - the key indicator of prostate cancer - "is virtually at an undetectable level." He is not undergoing any treatment at "this present moment, right now," he said, picking his words carefully. He is on a drug regime but said he wasn't about to spell out the names of the pills he's taking.

When asked whether the cancer or treatment for it had contributed to his hip fracture, Mr. Layton said no one knows what caused it.

In addition to using a crutch, he must sit on a special pillow that keeps the angle of his hip stable. His doctors have told him he needs to be extremely careful with the movement of his hip for "a good six to eight weeks."

"Well, I'm now three weeks in," he said. And over the five-week campaign he will have to have his hip checked and possibly see his oncologist.

Before that, however, he is taking his determined spirit right into the Tory heartland. His first campaign stop is Edmonton. It's a way of emphasizing the fact that the NDP is "the only party that defeats Conservatives in Alberta," he said, referring to the NDP's Linda Duncan securing a seat in Edmonton-Strathcona in 2008. He'll also be concentrating on Tory ridings in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and even in Oshawa - not far from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's neighbourhood.

He believes the ballot-box question will be one of "getting leadership for this country that people can trust."

Although his health challenges add to his campaign story, he said he will not be talking about that. So many people and families face similar challenges, he said.

Political observers doubt that Mr. Layton's health will be a factor in the vote. Nik Nanos, the Globe and CTV election pollster, says there has been no sympathy bump in the polls for Mr. Layton. Rather, it is the other leaders who should tread carefully to avoid criticizing him because of his health.

"That would be politically toxic," Mr. Nanos said.

And while Tom Flanagan, former Harper Conservative campaign manager, said that Mr. Layton may have to cut back on "the Energizer Bunny act," a leader's tour does not an election win. "A leader can't win a national election by shaking hands," he said. "The point of the tour is to generate media stories, and he can do that on crutches."

Mr. Layton showed just how much he can do that with his surprise announcement this week. On Tuesday, as he hobbled over to the budget lock-up, he was pessimistic. His meeting last month with the Prime Minister in which he presented his budget demands did not go well, he said. He thought the fix was in even then.

"I think the most telling line from that meeting was, 'Well, you know, Jack, we don't really agree on most policy issues,' " recalled Mr. Layton, laughing. "As a way to frame a discussion, I thought, 'Okay….' "

Still, he remained "ever hopeful" that the Tories would play ball - at least until he saw Tuesday's budget that offered little to the NDP. Even then, he gave the Conservatives one more out: "I very specifically said at the end of my statement [on Tuesday]that we can't approve it [the budget]in its current form."

The Tories weren't willing to play. On Friday, Mr. Layton stood in his place in the Commons and voted with his opposition colleagues to defeat the government.