Liberals' election strategy comes down to 'Let's get it over with'

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The Gazette, Monday, March 21, 2011

In the echo chamber of Ottawa, the media have decided there's going to be an election. But it's not their call. There's this guy named Jack Layton, and he's got the balance of power.

It's Layton who holds the fate of the 40th Parliament in his hands, as the House resumes for a week that will present him, and the country, with a moment of truth: whether to defeat the Harper government on its budget, or not.

The NDP leader has presented his shopping list for the budget, starting with an increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for hardpressed seniors.

"We want the GIS to be raised. It's very do-able, and will cost only $700 million," Layton was saying from Toronto before the weekend.

He's probably going to get that. And maybe his request for a renewal of the home renovation program.

"We've laid out very specific, do-able, affordable steps," Layton said, harking back to the 2005 Liberal budget when the NDP voted for it in return for $4.6 billion. "We laid it out literally to the dollar and that's where it came in, $4.6 billion."

If Stephen Harper meets his requests, he says, there will be no election.

"If he does not," said Layton, "then he's provoking an election."

Well then, let's see what Jim Flaherty has in his budget Tuesday afternoon. Layton continues to ask that Ottawa increase contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, something it can't do without the support of two-thirds of the provinces representing two-thirds of the population.

He continues to ask that Ottawa exempt home fuel costs from tax, even though the five provinces that have harmonized their sales tax with the feds have already stipulated their exemptions up to five per cent of the revenue pool.

He continues to ask that Ottawa hire 1,200 doctors and 7,000 nurses so that "five million Canadians without family medicine" can be looked after.

We have this thing called the division of powers in the Constitution, which the NDP has never been very concerned about. But the provinces, which license doctors and nurses, and which run the health-care system, probably have a view. Where are we going to find all those family doctors and nurses, to say nothing of the money to pay for them?

This, to say the least, is very wish-listy.

Layton has said he will look at the budget "as a whole." But if he's talking about a seamless whole, if the undoables are deal-breakers for him, then welcome to Campaign 2011.

In terms of where Flaherty is coming out, he has already ruled CPP increases and HST fuel exemptions off the table - not because he refuses to consider them, but precisely because he can't. He explained this very clearly in a news conference last month.

For the rest, Layton says he has no sense of where Flaherty is netting out.

"He certainly has not communicated anything to me. We haven't heard a word from him."

By the time Flaherty delivers his speech and moves the main motion on the budget Tuesday, the media hordes will be pressing Layton for an answer on whether the NDP will vote it up or down.

He might want to meet his caucus. "Our caucus has been very united on this," Layton said. That's another way of saying the caucus will follow the leader.

On Wednesday, the Liberals and Bloc will present their amendment and subamendment to the budget. It's very clear the Liberals will try to jam the NDP by making their amendment about the government's refusal to rescind corporate tax cuts. "I can't comment on the Liberal amendment until I see it," Layton said.

And even before the main budget vote next week, the government could also fall on a Liberal opposition day on Friday - not on the budget, but on a bunch of trust issues bundled up as contempt of Parliament.

All that being said, there remains the issue of Layton's health, his recovery from prostate cancer and his hip surgery of only 10 days ago.

"Feeling better every day," he said.

But can he get on and off the plane and bus several times a day?

"Sure can." Sounds like bring it on.

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