Taking sides

Was propping up the Tories the right move for Jack Layton’s NDP?


Taking sidesJust short of 10:30 a.m. last Friday morning, Jack Layton stood in his place in the House of Commons and did the previously unthinkable.

The House was asked to approve various measures in last January’s federal budget and allow the government to proceed with confidence. All those voting “yea” were to stand, and after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois were counted, it was Layton’s turn to lead the NDP acquiescence. And so he did. The Liberals howled, at least until Michael Ignatieff, grimacing, waved his hand for them to settle down. A few minutes later, with Ignatieff’s side voting nay, the motion passed by a count of 224 to 74.

Layton then walked into the foyer to face a skeptical delegation from the press gallery. He was, he said, looking out for all those who had fixed up their patio this summer and were counting on the home renovation tax credit—never mind that the popular measure may or may not have actually been in real danger. A moment later, Ignatieff arrived at the same microphone, looking altogether serene. “Jack and Gilles have gone up the hill,” he quipped, “and we know how that little fairy tale ends.”

This seemed a terrible day for the leader of the NDP. But if you were thinking Jack Layton had just turned himself inside out, that the unrelenting opponent of this government had just debased himself for the purposes of political expediency, you would be wrong. At least so says the NDP.

“Canadians are fair-minded and want their politicians to use common sense,” Brad Lavigne, the party’s national director, said over coffee a few hours after the vote. “And what you’ve seen is probably Jack Layton’s best week of his leadership.”

Really? “Absolutely,” Lavigne confirmed. “I’d say it’s one of his best weeks by far. In terms of seizing the opportunity, sticking to the principles, recognizing that it actually takes strength to get things for the people that sent us here. I think what Jack Layton has done this week is give a voice to the millions of Canadians who want to see this Parliament work and don’t want to go to an election.”

Maybe so. But how to reconcile the Layton of last Friday with the Layton of the last three years? How to make sense of a party that loudly mocked the Liberals each time they wilted at the prospect of dealing the government a pivotal blow, only to fold when the onus was on it? What else to consider this but a sudden and dramatic change?

“Politicians do that all the time,” says NDP MP Peter Stoffer, the good-natured Nova Scotian. “You do something for quite awhile and all of a sudden, ‘Ah, we’ll just change our minds now.’ More or less what it means is that we looked at the situation, and I think our leader is absolutely correct, you can spend $300 million on an election or, hopefully, get a billion dollars for most of our supporters out there.”

The billion-dollar price tag is a reference to the next test of Layton’s new-found faith in the Harper government. Specifically, it is the estimated cost of a bill that would temporarily extend Employment Insurance benefits for some long-term workers. Having survived Friday’s vote, the government will be free to pursue that legislation. And assuming it passes scrutiny, the NDP will likely again cast its three dozen votes with the government, allowing the Conservatives, it seems now, to survive the fall.

There is generally no prize for consistency in Ottawa. But even by such standards, Layton’s volte-face seemed extraordinary. Eight months ago, Layton stood in the House and denounced not just the government’s budget, but those who would let it pass. Following him, his deputy, Thomas Mulcair, told the House that anyone who voted Liberal with the belief that that party would stand up to the “the most right-wing government in Canadian history” had been “conned.” With all of that on the record, it was Mulcair who was sent out last week to signal that the NDP would like to see said government survive in the short-term.

Certainly, the relationship between Harper, Layton and their respective parties has long been the subject of intrigue. Shortly before becoming prime minister, Harper acknowledged there were areas in which Conservatives and New Democrats might co-operate and later granted that a strong NDP worked to his electoral advantage. “In a narrow partisan sense I’d like to see the NDP do better,” he told Maclean’s in December 2007, “but they are locked in a permanent opposition mentality. It’s almost congenital.”

Last fall, when the government pledged to eliminate the per-vote subsidy to political parties, Conservatives assumed the NDP, with its improved fundraising, would be delighted to join the Tories in grievously injuring the Liberals. But the government also vowed to suspend the public sector’s right to strike and eliminate the right of women to seek pay equity complaints through the Canadian Human Rights Commission. As a result, the NDP chose to side with the Liberals and Harper’s government nearly fell.

In the aftermath, the Prime Minister has sought a clear distinction between his side and an alliance of Liberals, “socialists” and “separatists.” And where the NDP was once a potential ally in the destruction of the mutually loathed Liberals, it is now just another threat to the country (or at least to Stephen Harper’s hope of a majority mandate). Which is why the Tories are back attacking the NDP, even as Layton props up his minority.

Polarization of the political sphere has not helped the NDP cause. The Liberals are generally polling better than last fall’s election, they are fundraising at a brisker pace, and Michael Ignatieff is widely expected to fare stronger in an election campaign than Stéphane Dion. In the meantime, NDP poll numbers are more or less flat, perhaps even down slightly. The recession has failed to stoke the sort of popular anger that might have been expected to bolster their support. The causes of old—women’s rights, the role of the government in the economy—seem decided. The traditional source of strength—organized labour—has suffered a rough year. One recent seat projection—from threehundredeight.com—suggested the New Democrats might lose a dozen seats if an election were called now.

All of which, no doubt, makes an election something less than an exciting option for New Democrats. Still, as late as Aug. 28, the NDP was mocking the Liberal side’s refusal to get tough with the Tories—a party press release noting that the Liberals have “rubberstamped” Harper’s agenda “79 times and counting.” But Layton had already begun to draw out a loophole for himself. Speaking to the NDP convention in mid-August, he contrasted his seriousness with the brinksmanship of the Liberals and Conservatives. “While Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff do their election dance, they’re letting people wait,” he said. The promise of changes to EI was apparently enough of a hook to hang this new narrative from.

Immediate speculation may have pegged the NDP’s shift to nothing more than survival—that the party is unprepared for, perhaps even unable to wage, a proper campaign—but New Democrats insist this is simply about seizing opportunity. They hearken back, as they often do, to their rewriting of Paul Martin’s budget in 2005, suggesting they can take some credit for changes to EI. “It was an easier decision than I think a lot of folks would give it credit for,” Lavigne says of the NDP’s move last week.

In the party’s never-ending quest to differentiate itself from the competition and seem reasonable, this moment did offer an opportunity to do both. When the Liberals were unwilling to stand up to the Harper government, the NDP was apoplectic. Now that the Liberals are ready to fight, the NDP pleads for sanity. “Most voters who don’t like the Harper government still don’t want an election and don’t see why having one now is in their interests,” notes political analyst Bruce Anderson. “ ‘Standing down’ is characterized as ‘laying down’ within the Ottawa micro-climate, but everywhere else it looks more like common sense.”

This is what Joe Comartin says he’s hearing. “I think most people in my area, I like to think we have fairly sophisticated voters here, their analysis is that we have the election, we spend the $300 million to $350 million and we don’t get much change. What they’d prefer for us to do is to try to hammer away at the government and try to get the [EI] criteria changed,” says Comartin, the Windsor NDP MP who has acknowledged the proposed EI changes won’t help many autoworkers in his riding.

Comartin says there is little else on the agenda that would compel the NDP to reverse course again. Corporate tax cuts or an extension to the Afghanistan mission would be deal breakers, but neither is likely to come up this fall. The NDP opposes a proposed free trade deal with Colombia, but the Liberals support it, potentially, Comartin figures, putting Ignatieff in an awkward spot.

In the meantime, if Layton can stand the jeers on Parliament Hill, the NDP may yet seem the conscience of Ottawa it periodically claims to be. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never, ever had confidence in Stephen Harper,” Stoffer says. “But I am comfortable in looking at the lay of the land and seeing the situation out there, and the reality is it is a change for the NDP, there’s no question. But, again, if we’re able to do something constructive, then at least that’s something positive.”

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Taking sides

  1. Jack swallowed his pride and did the best thing for the country. It also helped that avoiding an election was good for the NDP who stood to lose support and seats.

    Ignatieff stills plows ahead stubbornly trying to give the Conservatives that majority they covet.

    • It's comments like this that make me worry for Canada. I mean, had Ignatieff, or Dion, or any other Liberal leader "swallowed his pride" to do the best thing for the country, he'd be lambasted (and was) for propping up Harper. It drives me nuts how hypocritical partisan Canadian voters can be: "if the leader of my party does it, woohoo; if any other leader does it, tsk tsk tsk."

    • Jack saw his polling numbers.That is why there is no election' yet.' Ignatieff should be very afraid right now.

  2. We like to snicker at the US, but at the moment, this country is as divided as our neighbour to the south.

    Jack voted 79 times against the government because he could not support the way they operate…..and then Jack changed his mind for the good of Canadians. The truth is that Jack is looking out for himself and his party, just like Stephen and Michael.
    I love this country too much not to vote, but these guys surely tempt me.

    • I wouldn't go as far as saying were as divided as our neighbours to south. Maybe we would be in the Conservatives governed like conservatives and could get elected as conservatives, but they have moved so far to the centre they are indistinguishable from the Liberals in many ways. I'm not so sure its that Canadians are divided, but rather complacent. None of the parties are offering anything really different so Canadians would rather just sit where they are.

  3. Just a correction Danby. Jack never "voted 79 times against the government".

    The point isn't about the NDP (who have voted with the Tories on some issues, of course). It's that the Liberals have been in lock step with Harper. They gave the Harper government a pass on confidence matters 79 times. And for what? A lunch meeting with Pierre Pollievre?

    At least the NDP got $1 billion for the unemployed. What have the Liberals to show for their complicity?

  4. oppo guy –"Just a correction Danby. Jack never "voted 79 times against the government"".

    Jack Layton –"Look at the record – 79 times in succession it hasn't been the NDP that Mr. Harper has counted on to get support,"

    Dick Richards –"oppo guy is probably right; when Jack said he voted against the Harper government 79 times, that was probably an opportunistic lie too

  5. The one thing I don't get about the NDP's billion dollar line is that the NDP vehemently opposed the $1.2 billion for extending EI bennefits by 5 weeks. This bennefited all people who have to rely on EI.
    Now the NDP is supporting the government in exchange for $1 billion that is aimed only at a segment of the unemployed populace.
    Why is this billion, aimed only at long tenured workers, worth supporting the government when $1.2 billion for all EI recipients had to be opposed at all costs?

  6. Jack Layton, as the catalyst to either cause or avoid an election, couldn't help but benefit himself. Mikhail Igneutiev is the only perpetual loser here, as the politicking continues. PM Stephen Harper is running a pretty steady ship, considering the turbulence, and NDP MP Joe Cromartin's read of his constituents is correct.
    Doing what they can to hold the Government to account, in the existing Parliament, theoretically should have a positive impact on all Canadians.

  7. only in Canada could this gong show even be considered as governance

  8. Spin, spin, spin – the NDP, without even blinking an eye, will spin anything completely inside out, to try to make their baldy little man look good. They must really think that 85% of Canadian voters are dumb as dirt – or at least dumb as the 15% that vote NDP. A Dipper can look right in to the camera, and spin lies till the cows come home, without even blinking. Zero scruples; zero integrity – maximum hypocrisy. It's the NDP way!

    • Please do not pretend that our friends Stephen and Michael do not do exactly the same thing always in all ways and more … it is not the NDP way – it is, unfortunately, the Canadian way … where oh where have all the good men gone? What I would not give for a Pierre Trudeau, a Tommy Douglas, or a Lester B. Pearson … do we have to wait for Justin to grow up before we can have real leadership?

      • "… do we have to wait for Justin to grow up before we can have real leadership? "

        Oh…right…then Ben Mulroney for the Conservatives, Michael Cera for the Greens and Keanu Reeves for the NDP!

        Canada would be awash in leaders then.

  9. Mr Harper's speech was the best speech the NDP have ever given.
    A coalition born in the voters interest.

  10. This whole 'call Jack a hypocrite' schtick is a bit silly. For obvious reasons, this is the best choice for Layton, and it is only the vehemence in his opposition of yore, that makes him look a bit ridiculous now. Blaming him for taking a much more practical approach now, when he finally has the opportunity to exercise some power, and little ability to fight a campaign, seems to be piling it on.

    • Indeed, it is a quirk of minority government, that's all. The super-double-reverse-inward quirk (with a half-pike) has been that the leading opposition party has refused to oppose, both under Dion and Ignatieff, until this last week.

      Stands to reason that the lesser parties have been irrelevant courtship targets for so long.

  11. Corporate tax cuts or an extension to the Afghanistan mission would be deal breakers, but neither is likely to come up this fall.

    Oh, for a FU that kills the undeserved free money for all the parties…

  12. Stoffer: "… you can spend $300 million on an election or, hopefully, get a billion dollars for most of our supporters out there."

    Wow, most of your supporters are recently unemployed former longish-term workers? Even in a recession, that seems a little… narrow of a target market.

    Oh, and Peter, care to describe where that billion is "gotten" from? Not your supporters?

  13. I applaud Jack for not sending us into ANOTHER federal election. I am 22 years old and can't remember the last time we had a majority government- it seems Canada will never get out of the minority government curse.

    • I'm 29+ years old. Except for the last four years, I can only remember majority governments..They were called "elected dictatorships." You'll be complaining if and when we get them.

  14. The NDP needs three to five priorities that it can present to the public in the next election. Right now, I'm not sure what the focus is for the NDP. The overall priority is to get as many seats as possible. There is no need to strive for Jack being PM or opposition leader. Just increase the seat total.

    Campaign in areas where the NDP may have a chance in winning. The priorities should help the NDP win the swing seats. There is no point campaigning in St. Louis du Ha!-Ha! or Pohénégamouk when the party won't have a chance winning seats there. Certainly visit Mulclair's riding and then get out of Quebec and try to win winnable seats.

    The NDP should set itself up by aiming for the 2014? election.

  15. When you are as broke as the dippers and totally out of touch with voters you do not want to loose yet another election. Look at the NDP finances. That is how government finances would look if Jack had custody of the chequebook.

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