NDP lucks out

Defection of Liberal gives Jack Layton's party the balance of power

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A minority Parliament can, by definition, fall at any time, especially over a budget or a non-confidence motion, the two issues that clearly define confidence. Until very recently, the general expectation was that the Harper government would fall, or arrange for its own defeat, on the 2007 budget.

Yet the window for a federal election in 2007 has always been a narrow one - between an expected Quebec election in the spring and an Ontario election on a fixed calendar for early October. That leaves late spring to early summer, or possibly late fall, for the feds.

The 2007 election window might have closed last week when Wajid Kahn crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives, changing the math of the House, and shifting the balance of power from the Bloc Quebecois to the NDP.

The math is easy - 125 Conservatives plus 29 NDPers equals 154, while 100 Liberals plus 51 Bloc equals 151. Even if the two independents, Andre Arthur of Quebec and Garth Turner of Ontario, were to vote against the government on a question of confidence, the Tory-NDP alliance would still win a tie. If the case of no-shows, the alliance would still have an edge. In Parliament, as in baseball, a tie goes to the runner. Parliamentary convention dictates that House Speaker Peter Milliken, although a Liberal, would break a tie in favour of the government.

The balance of power is a more delicate matter - the NDP now has a hand to play, which they must do without overplaying it.

Jack Layton has a mantra that the voters sent the parties to this minority House to make it work. Now he has an extraordinary opportunity to stay in the House and make it work.

This would not only give Layton the possibility of influencing outcomes for the better, particularly on the environment, but it would give him something he badly needs - time.

He needs time to push back the pincer movement on the environment led by Elizabeth May and the Green Party on the left and Stephane Dion and the Liberals in the centre. Both May and Dion are poaching in Layton's pool of voters. A year from now, the bloom could be off both, and the NDP could have recovered from its slide in the polls, which began after its loony-left policy convention last September, and accelerated with the appearance of May and the surprise victory of the green Dion at the Liberal convention in December.

Layton was already doing business with Stephen Harper when the prime minister agreed to his request to refer the Clean Air bill to a special committee of the House. Last Thursday's cabinet shuffle was significant for the NDP in one important sense - they did business with John Baird as Treasury Board president over the Accountability Act, which means they can do business with him in committee over the Clean Air Act.

Then when Kahn crossed the floor last Friday, Layton was handed the opportunity to be a real player, rather than a mere participant, in the life of this Parliament.

Layton's caucus meets in Vancouver this week, and the question before them is very simple - do they want to be kids with attitude, or grown-ups with influence?

It's very simple - a deal on climate change, with emissions-reductions targets in the House committee and funding in the budget, would deprive both May and Dion of the moral high ground. The NDP could be positioned as a pragmatic party of the centre-left, which achieved real results as opposed to the rhetoric of the Greens and the dismal record of the Liberals.

The point is that with his recent slide in the polls, Layton doesn't, or shouldn't, want an election anytime soon. The environment committee, and particularly last week's shift in the balance of power, give him the high ground for avoiding one. They would also give him time to recover and rebuild.

The other leaders equally have reasons to avoid an election in 2007. Harper wants to govern as long as he can to be perceived as a prime minister with a record, not just a checklist of priorities, going into the next election.

Dion might be tempted by poll numbers reflecting a bounce from the Liberal convention, and an early election would avoid the necessity of healing wounds and paying off debts from the leadership race. But it takes time to heal those wounds and, despite many adroit gestures, Dion isn't there yet.

As for the Bloc members, they don't want a federal campaign to conflict with a provincial election in Quebec. And whenever the federal writ drops, it will be Gilles Duceppe's fifth campaign, and probably his last.

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