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—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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