Ottawa's new best friends - Stephen Harper and Jack Layton

Not forever, maybe, but long enough to keep the House functioning

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The Gazette, Monday, January 29, 2007

As Parliament resumes today, assumptions about there being an election in 2007 have been downgraded from likely to unlikely.

This is partly because it's not in the interest of any party to have one. Moreover, with Wajid Kahn crossing the floor from the Liberals to the Tories, the balance of power has shifted from the Bloc Quebecois to the New Democrats. In the new math of the House, 125 Conservatives plus 29 NDP make 154 out of 308 seats in the House.

As long as Stephen Harper can hold together a working coalition with Jack Layton, then he can keep this House going through 2007.

It's in both party leaders' interests to avoid an early election. For Harper, the longer he's in government, the longer he's prime minister, and the more he's seen as prime minister. In the last two elections, the Liberals tried, with some success, to define him as a scary guy. But the longer he's in office, the more he looks like a regular guy, the family man who opened the Quebec carnival on the weekend with Laureen, Ben and Rachel.

As for Layton, he doesn't want an election this spring, not after the way his poll numbers melted in the fall. He needs time to push back the pincer movement from Elizabeth May and the Greens on the left and Stephane Dion and the Liberals in the centre.

The best way for Layton to do that is to show results, not only on climate change, but on other items in the budget, matters close to the NDP's heart.

Since the cabinet shuffle in the first week of January, the government has rolled out a dizzying succession of announcements on the environment and energy efficiency.

But those announcements, many of which were in the pipeline for months, were mainly about building Conservative credibility for caring and engaging on the issue, as well as winning qualified support from environmental stakeholders.

But that's all process stuff. The real crunch on climate change will come in the special committee, struck at Layton's request, to improve the government's Clean Air bill. If they can agree on two numbers - for emissions-reduction targets and funding them in the budget, then the working coalition will hold.

The likely budget date is March 20, so that gives the committee about six weeks to do its work before the budget numbers are locked in. A proven ability to deal with the NDP, like John Baird showed on the Accountability Act, is one of the reasons he was moved from Treasury Board to Environment in the cabinet shuffle. But at the end of the day, it will be Harper and Layton who sign off on any deal on climate change.

Nor will the NDP have any difficulty supporting such initiatives as the one enabling parents to set up trust funds for disabled children. Fairness for families might be a major budget theme, including income-splitting for seniors. Middle-income tax cuts are always welcome, but business tax breaks are deal-breakers for the NDP.

And there are a couple of things Layton can get outside the budget. A ban on replacement workers, or an anti-scab law, is now working its way through in a private member's bill. It's thought to have a good chance of adoption.

And did you notice Finance Minister Jim Flaherty agreeing with Layton the other day when he was talking about outrageous ATM charges for non-customers of banks?

These charges, of $1.50 to $2 for every transaction at a bank other than your own, are highly unpopular with consumers. Canadians see the banks making billions of dollars of profits, and raking in hundreds of millions of easy ATM money, for which they provide no service other than electronic transfers. It's the highest-margin business this side of the cocaine trade, and it's legal.

Flaherty's message to Layton was pretty clear. You're all right, Jack. An amendment to the Bank Act? Why not?

If Layton can deliver on climate change, if he can score a couple of hits in the budget, and achieve a highly visible victory for consumers on ATM charges, that would be enough to mollify an NDP base that's understandably uneasy about doing business with the Tories.

It would give him powerful pushback against May and the Greens. Who needs them if he's delivering the green goods?

That would be enough to keep the place going through the spring session and into the summer. And as a fallback, Harper might yet have the Bloc between a rock and a hard place on the fiscal imbalance.

Gilles Duceppe can denounce a deal as inadequate, but he can't vote against another $1.5 billion for Quebec in the budget. Not in any way he can explain it to the voters, anyway.

This is going to be a great show: Let's Make a Deal.

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