This Parliament will last for a while

The NDP already negotiating terms for propping up the Conservatives

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The Gazette, Saturday, November 21, 2009

There are several reasons why this minority Parliament is going to be in business for another year, until at least the fall of 2010, if not until the winter or spring of 2011.

The first is the Vancouver Games in February, which will delay the budget from its normal late February release, putting it back into March, when the country will be enjoying an Olympic afterglow, and in no more mood for a spring election than it was for one this fall. By then, Stephen Harper will be on the threshold of a world tour to brief leaders of the G8 and G20, whom he'll be hosting at Muskoka and Toronto next June. The summits will themselves set the stage for Harper's next summer announcement tour.

The second is that the Liberals need at least a year to regroup under the new management in the leader's office, and do a complete makeover on Michael Ignatieff. The unvarnished truth is that he has done nothing to improve his game, and needs to take it to a much higher level if he is to be competitive with Harper in an election.

The good news for Ignatieff is that he failed to force the election he promised when he famously told Harper his time was up. Ignatieff would have got killed in an election had he precipitated one for mid-November. Poll numbers this weekend by Angus Reid put the Conservatives 15 points ahead of the Liberals, 38-23, with the NDP at 17 per cent. That's majority territory for sure for the Conservatives, and the lowest poll numbers for the Liberals in memory. But that's probably a bottom.

And the third reason is that Jack Layton, who has enjoyed a season of relevance, would like to continue being relevant, and to do so he needs to keep this Parliament going.

And this could be the biggest reason of all. If Layton decides to continue exercising the balance of power, all other reasons for keeping this House going are beside the point.

Here are a couple of things about Layton and the NDP that, in all the furies consuming Iggy and the Liberals this fall, generally went unnoticed and unremarked.

The first was when Layton decided that $1 billion of extended employment-insurance benefits to workers who had made long-term contributions was enough reason for him to keep the government in office. As he put it at the time in a Policy Options interview, "It would be very difficult for me to walk away from $1 billion of assistance for 200,000 families across the country." He wasn't wrong about that. He was talking about the families of auto workers in Ontario and forestry workers in British Columbia, and he can say he leaned on the government to get them that money.

Then on Ignatieff's non-confidence motion at the end of September, Layton and the NDP abstained rather than voting with the government, nevertheless sustaining it in office.

That was a very interesting moment, because it established a precedent.

Encountered at a social occasion in Ottawa a few weeks later, Layton was asked about it.

By abstaining, he was asked, "you gave yourself permission to abstain on the budget, didn't you?"

"Absolutely," he replied without hesitation.

Something else had happened over the Thanksgiving break in October. Back in their ridings, as Layton's chief of staff Anne McGrath later recalled, there was no blowback from the NDP base on keeping the House going. They were in the same place as most voters - no election, not now.

And while it's difficult to imagine any circumstances in which the NDP would vote in favour of a Conservative budget, Layton has established his own precedent to abstain on it, provided he gets something in it for what Ed Broadbent used to call "ordinary Canadians."

And what would that be? Well, that's interesting, too.

Three weeks ago, on a slow day in question period, Layton mentioned that hundreds of thousands of Canadians were living below the poverty line and would benefit from a $700-million increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

"Will the government commit to increasing the GIS and helping seniors?"

Harper's reply was interesting: "Mr. Speaker, I note that the NDP did welcome the changes brought forward by the minister of finance and, as we have indicated many times, we continue to look at ways of improving the pension system in this country. We will be open to all suggestions moving forward."

In essence, Layton was negotiating the terms of his abstaining on the budget, right on the floor of the House of Commons.

Sometimes, in all the sound and fury of question period, it's important to listen between the lines.

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