NDP, Tories make strange bedfellows on environment

Harper-Layton pact stands to help both parties

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Those strange bedfellows, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, are proof the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Their common enemy, the Liberal Party, is enough to make them friends. And the last week has seen an unstable minority House transformed into a functional Parliament because of a de-facto working alliance between the Conservatives on the right and the NDP on the left.

Go figure.

An extraordinary thing happened last Monday when Jack Layton asked for a meeting with Stephen Harper within 24 hours to discuss the urgent global crisis of climate change. The word Kyoto never passed his lips.

Sure, Harper said, anytime. And so it was arranged for the following afternoon. They met for half an hour in the prime minister's Centre Block office, and the conversation was extremely cordial. Layton began by thanking Harper for agreeing to see him so quickly.

They discussed Layton's three-page private member's bill on climate change, which would set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

This is a much steeper emissions reduction target than the 45 to 65 per cent below 2003 levels in the government's Clean Air bill. But significantly it's on the same timeline - 2050 - recommended by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

This would legitimize the 2050 number that was deemed laughably not-in-our-lifetime in the totally botched Tory announcement of their environment bill. As someone said at the time, the best-organized part of it was the fire drill evacuating the building in the middle of the lock-up. Somehow, instead of the story being significant reductions, it became the time frame. What the Conservatives failed to explain, and what the media failed to grasp, is that long-term targets are precisely what the scientific community has been asking for.

"We've been asking for that for years," says Gordon McBean, the former head of the weather service at Environment Canada, now a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario, and probably the country's leading authority on climate change.

If Layton was offering to look past Kyoto, if his number was also 2050, he was offering Harper an opportunity to reframe an issue that had been badly bungled by his government.

"I need a takeaway from this meeting," Layton said. "I want the Clean Air bill referred to committee after first reading rather than second."

"That's not a problem," Harper replied, "but I've got to run this by some people." Within half an hour of the meeting, Harper had spoken to House Leader Rob Nicholoson, Government Whip Jay Hill and Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, none of whom had any problem with Layton's proposal to strike a special legislative body beyond the normal purview of the House Environment committee, currently overloaded with a review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

While Layton went out and did the usual sabre-rattling about deadlines, the deal was essentially done in Harper's office. Once there was agreement, Ambrose went on television and said the government welcomed good ideas from all parties, that the environment was a non-partisan issue. It was her best moment since being handed an incredibly complex file.

So the Conservatives get an opportunity to reload on climate change. And Layton and the NDP get to be players on a file where they've previously been the captives of the Ontario autoworkers, the guys who make the gas guzzlers that are a big part of the problem. A win-win for both.

Then on the government's decision to tax income trusts, NDP finance critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis was on her feet in question period, praising the decision as the right thing to do. Although the NDP MPs were a bit skittish about it, they were expected to support the government last night in a ways-and-means motion on income trusts.

And, finally, on the government's Accountability Act, which is missing in action over in the Senate, Treasury Board President John Baird went out of his way yesterday to say "the NDP has been a great ally in reform."

This alliance of left and right in the House might not always be comfortable for the NDP, but if it works for them to the detriment of the Liberals, why not? Layton might be a publicity hound, but he also knows how to deal. For the Conservatives, the advantage of a coalition with the NDP is obvious: It moves Harper closer to the centre.

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