Budget deal requires grown-ups

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Sun Media, Friday, February 25, 2011

Wanted for a budget deal--grown-ups from the NDP, the party that can't take a punch from the Liberals and is way too beholden to the nervous Nellies in its ranks.

Jack Layton got a meeting with Stephen Harper last Friday and afterwards both sides made polite noises about the talks.

Also present and taking notes were their two chiefs of staff, Nigel Wright of the Prime Minister's Office and Ann McGrath of the NDP leader's office -- both grown-ups.

The meeting ran longer than scheduled, usually a good sign. It was actually the third conversation between the two principals, who had spoken twice previously on the phone.

Of course, you didn't read about that in the papers because no one leaked it. But after their face-to-face, both sides foolishly talked about it, immediately raising expectations of a deal.

Not to mention the predictable push-back from the Liberals and nervous reaction from the NDP tribe.

The next day's coverage included a story about corporate tax cuts being "off the table" in the talks, and all hell broke loose.

Families first, says Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals promptly accused Layton of folding on a traditional NDP tenet of making the rich pay.

Instead of telling Iggy to drop dead by reminding him that the Liberals hid behind the curtains when the NDP voted against corporate tax cuts four years ago, which had been his previous position, Layton allowed himself to get wedged.

He went on CTV's Question Period on Sunday, went sideways on corporate tax cuts and said his shopping list was non-negotiable. There's nothing like drawing a line in the sand when you'll have to step back from it.

By Monday, the NDP's national director, Brad Lavigne, normally also one of the grown-ups in the room, was rattling sabres of his own, accusing the Conservatives of "playing games."

Stop it. Stop having summit meetings and stop putting down markers on television.

The deal, if there is one, would be negotiated by Wright, McGrath and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, with Harper signing off on it. The media and Liberals should be completely out of the loop.

Being Irish, Flaherty knows blarney when he sees it, and he wasn't offended by Layton's fit of pique. Flaherty knows perfectly well the NDP doesn't want an election in which it stands to lose up to a dozen seats, and in which its leader would be put through a punishing grind while still in recovery from prostate cancer.

The NDP had a positive mood swing at mid-week when the government announced $40-million to hire doctors in rural Canada. It changed the story line from corporate fat cats to people in need.

So what's achievable and what's not? What's not achievable is Layton's ask for a sales-tax exemption on home heating fuel. It's technically too difficult. Provinces that have harmonized their sales tax with Ottawa can exempt products up to 5% of the revenue base and already have.

What is achievable is a topping up of the Guaranteed Income Supplement for those most in need, particularly widows without pensions. The cost would be $700 million, and with the deficit likely lower than forecast, Flaherty has the margin to do that.

Throw in a couple of small items to take the price tag north of $1 billion, and you're into deal territory.

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