Layton walked away from the budget when he didn't have to, and the race is on

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The Gazette, Monday, March 28, 2011

We're having an election because Jack Layton kicked the tires of the budget, but refused to take it out for a test drive.

Layton can blame Stephen Harper all he wants for "provoking" this election, but everyone knows he walked away from a budget that contained sufficient cover and comfort for the NDP to support it.

Indeed, that was the general consensus in last Tuesday's budget lockup for the media about where Layton would net out. And instead of at least sleeping on it and talking to his caucus the next morning, as his staff had told media, he went out right away and blew the budget up, saying his wish list was an all-or-nothing proposition.

So he got nothing. Instead, he gets to go on the road for the next five weeks, in the relentlessly demanding context of a campaign, when it's far from clear he is up to it.

Coming off cancer therapy and now a hip operation, he was walking very slowly with a crutch in the lobby of the House last week. And though his voice is strong, he appears somewhat frail.

What was he thinking? The truth is, as he's told NDP confidants privately for months, his preference was to go for an early election. And the whole line about making Parliament work was a head fake. A pretty good one at that.

Layton wants this election because he and his advisers share the view that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is an untested opponent who does not appear to be a strong campaigner. A Nanos poll last week had the Conservatives at 39 per cent, the Liberals at 28 per cent, and the NDP at 20 per cent.

For New Democrats, that's where they were in the time of Ed Broadbent, he of blessed memory who will be coming back to play a role on the New Democrats' B circuit. At 20 per cent, the NDP would be winning at least the 43 seats captured by Broadbent in 1988, when the House had only 295 seats rather than the 308 of today. At 20 per cent the NDP would have a shot at that many, at least. At dissolution on the weekend they had 36.

As for the Liberals, if they are really going into a campaign 11 points down, that is not a good place for them to be. While campaigns do matter, while it will easy for Iggy to exceed expectations, no campaign team of the two major parties likes to go into an election down double digits. The fact that the Liberals are putting the party logo, rather than Iggy's face, on his campaign bus, means the leader is a drag on the ticket. At this point, it is the fabled Liberal brand, not the leader, that is keeping them competitive.

As for the Conservatives, they can put two leaders in the window, Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty. The prime minister gets to run as the leader. And the finance minister gets to run on his budget.

The fact that it never came to a vote is beside the point. The fact is that he got to read it in the House, and offer all those things, not just to the NDP, but to the voters.

A budget to run on?

"Absolutely," Flaherty said on Friday via video conference from Ottawa as part of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada's conference on Canada-U.S. relations.

There's a lot to run on. Tax credits for children's cultural activities. A top-up in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for nearly 700,000 seniors without pensions. Up to $2,000 in credits for homecare providers. A one-year holiday on EI premiums for Canada's more than halfmillion small businesses hiring new staff. Forgiveness of student loans up to $40,000 for doctors and $20,000 for nurses who locate to remote or rural communities.

Not to mention home-reno money. And funding for volunteer firefighters.

So there's something for suburban parents, people caring for their parents, seniors, rural Canadians and places where volunteerism is the essence of the community.

No wonder Flaherty calls this "a wonderful opportunity" to get out there "and ask Canadians if they support this budget."

In five weeks, we'll know the answer.

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