Over to you, Mr. Layton

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National Post, Friday, September 4, 2009

Michael Ignatieff gave hostage to fortune the other day when he said: "Mr. Harper, your time is up." He added that the Liberals would no longer support the minority Conservative government in the House and would try to defeat them at the first opportunity. There is no way to climb down from a quote like that, which became the screaming banner headline and lead in every television and newspaper report of Ignatieff's speech to the Liberal caucus in Sudbury.

Yet the very next day, Iggy noted the NDP had some cards to play in this game. Indeed, the NDP changed the story line the same day as Iggy's original declaration of war on Harper, by sending out its deputy leader, Tom Mulcair, to say they would try to work with the government on a case-by-case basis.

Over to you, Jack.

But Jack Layton, who has never been known to hide from a TV camera, was in an undisclosed location until he surfaced in Halifax yesterday to announce his conditions for keeping this Parliament going. For 48 hours, Layton managed to say nothing and consider his options. This was a very grown-up response on his part. This is a very grown-up moment, or at least one calling for adult supervision to pull the country back from the precipice of an unwanted election.

Layton does have cards in this game. He has the balance of power, if he wants it. And yesterday he said he did. "It's never a question of propping up," he said, "it's a question of trying to get results for people." He also said it was up to Harper to "reach out and make Parliament work."

So what has Ignatieff accomplished by his pre-emptive takeout attempt against Harper? Well, in tactical terms, he's got the monkey off his back -- the idea that, like Stephane Dion, he's perpetually propping up the government. The Liberals are hoping that taunt will come back to haunt Layton.

On the other hand, Layton enjoys being relevant, and with the balance of power at his disposal, he is relevant as at no time since he propped up the Martin Liberals with a budget top up. Moreover, for the moment at least, Layton appears to be a responsible figure, and may be getting the odd break for "working families" in the process.

A case-by-case situation works well for Layton -- he can jump off any time he likes. But the question arises, if Layton has never supported this government on any previous question of confidence or opposition motion, why would he start now? Well, he's never had a moment like this, where the Liberals have simply turned over the balance of power to him. And in the previous minority Conservative House, the NDP alone could not keep the government in office, nor bring it down for that matter.

No formal arrangement with the NDP also suits Harper's purpose, as he made clear yesterday in the latest of his summer-long infrastructure announcements. Harper's larger message is that he has a plan for economic recovery, that the plan is working and that Canadians want all parties to co-operate for the good of the country. But so far as an election goes, he said, there would be no backroom deals, no coalitions with anyone, and it wasn't hard to see where he was going with that.

If there is a fall election, he will revive the spectre of the Three Stooges coalition of last fall, putting both Iggy and Jack's feet to the fire. As for a deal with the Bloc, forget it. Harper would never get away with it, not after his "separatist coalition" rhetoric of last autumn.

What else did Ignatieff get out of his move this week? More doubts about his judgment and his team's ability to execute. For example, he played the China card in his speech Tuesday, saying Canada had to engage with China, which Harper has never visited because his human rights agenda clashes with the imperatives of trade. But the very next day, Ignatieff cancelled his own trip to China so he could stay home in Canada and keep a watchful eye on a parliamentary storm of his own making.

Assuming Iggy's office knew he was going to cancel his trip, they should have taken the reference to China out of his speech. Amateur hour.

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