Official Opposition

Darrell Dexter's advice <br/>to Jack Layton: Stop yelling

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter speaks to The Globe and Mail's editorial board in Toronto on Feb. 24, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

When Nova Scotia's New Democrats vaulted from obscurity to Official Opposition 13 years ago, Darrell Dexter learned something that could prove useful as his federal cousin Jack Layton grapples with growing pains that accompany newfound political riches.

You don't have to yell and scream any more to get attention when you're the Official Opposition, Mr. Dexter, now Nova Scotia Premier, found.

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People are already listening - and in fact, you should dial it down when presenting yourself.

Mr. Dexter, speaking during a business trip to Ottawa Monday, recalled the difficult adjustment Nova Scotia's New Democrats went through in 1998 as they realized what they said and did as Official Opposition was receiving lots of attention - and was subject to closer scrutiny.

"When we were the third party with three seats, we had to yell and scream and kick to get a single line in the newspaper," Mr. Dexter said in an interview.

"When that world changed in 1998, when we became the Official Opposition, we didn't immediately recognize that. We thought we still had to talk with that loud voice in order to be heard," he said.

"All of the sudden you had to realize that you had to be able to reel it back in; you were now being listened to, so you didn't have to yell. You were being listened to; they were examining, measuring, weighing everything you said."

Mr. Layton now has 103 MPs and the right to live in the Official Opposition Leader's residence at Stornoway. Before the election the NDP was the fourth party in the House and had 36 seats.

Mr. Dexter calls the tasks confronting the federal NDP Leader "happy challenges" -

"the kind ... every leader would wish for: the challenge of an expanded caucus."

He said adjusting how the party presents itself is key though. "That's important if you are going to grow from a movement into a political fixture on the landscape of Canada."

Mr. Dexter praised Mr. Layton's new caucus, saying it contains a number of "extraordinarily exciting people."

He said the party must begin planning how to build on its political success.

"You've won 103 seats - but that's what you've won: 103 seats," the NDP premier said. "If you want to grow further than you have to prepare yourself for that. As they say, the will to win is overestimated; the will to prepare can never be underestimated."

Mr. Dexter said the NDP must accomplish this while tending to its existing base of voters. "I would go back to first principles on what you do in terms of stay connected to your ridings: make sure you spend time talking to the people who elected you and focus on the job you were sent to Ottawa to do."

The NDP Premier said Canadians will forgive mistakes but want to see their politicians learn and evolve.

"I am not one of those who believes the electorate is in search of perfection - they know that they elect people who are ordinary Canadians, that they are people who will make mistakes over time," he said. "But they look for you to grow in these positions; they look for you to demonstrate you understand your role."