Layton's balancing act

NDP must work with the Tories without getting too close to them

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 17, 2007

With the balance of power in the minority House shifting from the Bloc Quebecois to the NDP, the question for Jack Layton is one of balance - how to play the hand without overplaying it.

It's in Layton's interest to do business with the Conservatives. He often says the voters sent MPs to this Parliament to make it work. Well, here's his opportunity, to be relevant, to be a player, to influence positive outcomes.

Keeping this House going through 2007, or at least until the fall, would give Layton something he very much needs - time. He needs time to figure out how to push back Elizabeth May and the Green Party on the left, and Stephane Dion and the Liberals, who are crowding him from the centre.

While Layton is buying time, he can show results on the environment - an improved Clean Air Act, thanks to the NDP's work in the special committee of the House. Created at Layton's request, it will recommend improvements to the Clean Air bill: targets for emission reductions and funding for new technologies in the budget.

Progress on climate change would enable Layton to say "Never mind Elizabeth May and the Greens, they don't have any MPs. The NDP got this result with 29 members in this House, imagine what we could do if you gave us more members in the next one. As for Dion and the Liberals, it's all hot air. You can look it up under their record on the environment."

As long as Layton's mantra is climate change and not Kyoto, and up to now he has been very disciplined on this, the Conservatives will do business with him.

This is one of the reasons why John Baird is the new minister of the environment. For all his attack-dog tendencies, Baird is also a proven deal-maker with the NDP. As Treasury Board president last year, Baird was practically joined at the hip with NDP ethics critic Pat Martin. The Accountability Act was passed primarily with NDP support.

There are two sets of numbers for Baird to negotiate - emissions-reductions targets in the committee, and initial funding for them in the budget.

The budget is the part about Layton playing the hand without overplaying it. The NDP and the Conservatives can find significant common ground. But as Harper has also said, this budget won't be negotiated in a Toronto hotel room as the NDP "better-balanced budget" was with the Martin Liberals in 2005.

For example, the NDP could support income-splitting for seniors. They would be in favour of a "fairness to families" agenda, for example education trusts for parents with handicapped children, as proposed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty before the holidays.

Increased funding for post-secondary education? Absolutely, as long as it's about funding university research and development, an area where the feds have a role, and not tuition grants for students. That's provincial jurisdiction, Jack. Don't go there, because this prime minister respects the division of powers in the constitution, never more so than in the run-up to a Quebec election in the spring.

For his part, Stephen Harper will have to take some things off the table to secure NDP support. Middle-class tax cuts? No problem. Cuts to corporate or capital taxes? Forget it. The only reason to put them in would be to take them out as a bow to Layton.

The Conservatives need to create a comfort level for Layton, so while he's outflanking the Green and Liberals on climate change, his rear is also covered in terms of his caucus and his base. Many NDPers are uncomfortable, as the party of the left in the House, being in bed with a government on the right.

Well, the environment is a non-partisan issue. Global warming, the melting of the polar ice cap, the Northwest Passage as open water - these are concerns for all voters.

There are other issues, like the mission to Afghanistan, where Layton can preach to his own parish and take his distance from Harper. The prime minister understands that. In the House before the holidays, he noted that, unlike the Liberals and the Bloc, the NDP was at least consistent in its opposition to the mission.

For the NDP, the alternative to doing business with the Conservatives is to join the Liberals and Bloc in defeating the government over the budget or on a clear question of confidence.

The NDP would then run the considerable risk of getting killed in an early election. Equally, it's in Harper's interest to give the NDP time to grow again. Every additional vote for the NDP is one less for the Liberals, in vote-splitting terms. Right now, the vote splits work to Harper's detriment. Helping Layton rebuild into the upper teens works for Harper.

Can these guys make it work?

Asked this question last week, Harper had a short answer: "Time will tell."

Time and Jack Layton.

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