Who won?

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National Post, Friday, September 18, 2009

Advantage Harper. Stephen Harper has been using the benefit of his incumbency to full effect in Washington the last two days, and will do so again next week at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

And while the Prime Minister was having his meeting with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, and lobbying the Congressional leadership on bilateral trade issues, election fever came and went in Ottawa with the news that the Bloc and the NDP would prop up the Conservative minority government for a while.

Welcome to the separatist-socialist coalition. To the question of who won in this enormous game of chicken, the obvious answer is the voters, who have for the time being been spared a fall election they don't want. And this time they really mean it when they say they don't want an election, because of the economic moment we're in.

To the question of who loses, that depends on the spin. The Liberals are publicly saying they got the monkey of propping up the government off their back, and shifted that burden to Jack Layton and the NDP, who have been taunting them for years. In that sense, Michael Ignatieff's gamble has been successful. But to switch metaphors, Iggy has also grabbed a tiger by the tail, with the risk he could end up inside.

Ignatieff was recklessly taking the Liberals down the road to an election the voters would have blamed on him, and for which the Liberals were ill-prepared in terms of organization, content and the leader's tour. What was the message going to be, what was Ignatieff's story? Furthermore, the Liberals would have been going into an election down at least five points -- and possibly as many as 10, depending on the poll or day of the week--facing the certain wrath of voters on the doorstep. And they would have been offering what? Among other things, the creation of a G20 secretariat in Canada, as proposed by Iggy in his address on foreign policy this week.

So the Liberals are now in the uncomfortable position today of voting against a ways and means motion to implement a budget they supported. And having demanded a bipartisan committee to propose EI reform, they have walked away from it, allowing the government to pivot toward the NDP and gain their support.

And for what he gained, what did Ignatieff give up? Quite simply, the balance of power. He gave Jack Layton the keys to the car, and the NDP leader has decided to take it out for a spin. Layton likes being visible, and he likes being relevant, and thanks to Iggy he is now both.

Layton has announced that the NDP will vote with the government on non-confidence motions and opposition days this fall until the EI reforms are adopted. That could take months, until the Christmas recess, meaning the government's next moment of truth will be the budget. That would normally be in late February, but it will be delayed until March, following the Vancouver Winter Games. While it's difficult to envisage circumstances under which the NDP would support a Tory budget, you never know. The NDP obtained a top-up to the Martin government's 2005 budget. In any event, barring an accident of history, it appears the life of this Parliament will be prolonged by six months.

The Tories and the Dippers are not obvious dance partners, and there's always the risk that the NDP's base, the true believers on the left, will be annoyed at Layton for propping up the Conservatives.

On the other hand, the NDP base will be pleased with the EI amendments extending benefits by 20 weeks to workers who have made long-term contributions. These include thousands of autoworkers who have paid into the fund their entire lives and now find themselves laid off. Who are the NDP's base, if not autoworkers and other unionized employees who paid into the EI fund for decades? There's no way Layton could have walked away from $1-billion in extended benefits. The NDP would have gotten killed on the doorsteps of Oshawa and Whitby. Having taken the balance of power out for a test drive, Layton has now opted for a short-term lease. Vroomvroom.

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