Election or no election? It might come down to Jack Layton's health

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The Gazette, Monday, March 7, 2011

After weeks of hobbling around on crutches with a hip fracture, NDP leader Jack Layton underwent hip surgery in Toronto on Friday afternoon.

A spokesperson said he would be up and about in no time, would be back in the House of Commons for the budget on March 22, and would be ready for an election in the event the government is defeated on it.

Yeah, right.

The Liberals and the Bloc Québécois have already said they'll vote against the budget unless their absurd demands are met. The Liberals want corporate tax cuts rescinded and the Bloc wants $5.5 billion in cash for Quebec. Neither is going to happen.

Layton and the New Democrats have the balance of power. Layton has a long shopping list, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has said some of it is doable and some of it isn't.

One thing that's achievable is Layton's demand for a $700-million top-up of the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Flaherty's reply last week: "If you look at people who actually need help in Canada, who are not entitled to Canada Pension Plan benefits, who could use some support from government - that's something we're looking at."

As for talks with Layton and the NDP, Flaherty said "there are discussions that are continuing," and "the budget is not closed."

But two of the NDPs demands are off the table, as the party should have known before asking. The first is a sales-tax exemption on home heating oil. The second is an increase in CPP contributions. The first can't be done for technical reasons and the second can't be done for constitutional ones.

The five provinces that have harmonized their sales tax with Ottawa have already designated their HST exemptions, up to five per cent of revenues. And the CPP-QPP contributions can't be revised without the agreement of two-thirds of the provinces representing two-thirds of the population.

At Kananaskis, Alta., last December, Flaherty and his provincial colleagues agreed not open the question of CPP contributions. In other words, no more payroll taxes. Besides, the CPP is fully funded for the next 75 years.

Layton and the NDP know what's on the table, and what's not. They have a decision to make. On the one hand, they'd rather not have an election. On the other, they'd rather not do a deal with the Tories.

There are two reasons for the NDP to avoid a spring election. The first is the real possibility that it would take a serious hit, losing as many as a dozen seats from the 36 it now holds.

And the second is the leader's health.

He's still recovering from prostate cancer and his hip fracture has slowed him down. Not that you'd notice from seeing him in the House or a television studio, but getting there on crutches has not been half his fun. Recuperation from major hip surgery is normally six weeks minimum.

It isn't hard to do the math on this. The budget will be in two weeks, on March 22. The vote on the budget will be in three weeks, probably on March 29. If the government is defeated, the writ will drop the next day for a vote on either May 9 or May 16.

The NDP has a five-week campaign that's fully scripted, with a plane already chartered and buses ready to roll. What it doesn't have right now is a leader who can get on and off a plane and a bus four or five times a day.

In such circumstances, you'd think discretion would be the better part of valour, but that isn't to know the NDP very well. Still, one thing Layton has proven very good at is managing his caucus. It's something he says he learned from his father, Bob Layton, when the latter was chairman of Brian Mulroney's caucus. And Mulroney's first rule was "Always keep the caucus close." Jack Layton has successfully done so.

The question is, what can the NDP live with in terms of a budget deal, and what can it sell to its base? Layton will have a good sense of that.

He will also, more than anyone else in the coming days, have a sense of his physical limitations.

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