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For Layton, Conservative concessions didn't add up

NDP Leader Jack Layton is interviewed following the tabling of the federal budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters

Hours before he made a fateful decision that is destined to plunge Canada into an election, Jack Layton made a crucial phone call.

Sitting in his sixth-floor Parliament Hill office with chief of staff Anne McGrath, the NDP Leader called his key advisers to ensure they could be ready to embark on an election campaign in 24 hours.

For weeks, Parliament was waiting to see whether he would support the Tory budget or help force Canadians to the polls. On Tuesday, Mr. Layton, the Tories' best hope for avoiding an election, turned his back on them, frustrated that Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not go far enough in meeting his demands.

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Mr. Layton joined the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois in rejecting the 2011 budget, a cautious blueprint for erasing the country's deficit by 2015, with little in the way of new spending.

The opposition's repudiation of the budget is bound to lead to the defeat of the Conservative government within days, prompting a spring election. Although Mr. Layton suggested he was open to compromise, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was adamant that there would be no negotiations.

"The idea is not to craft a package that suits party A, party B, party C. The idea is to craft a package that's a good budget for Canadians," Mr. Flaherty told reporters Tuesday.

Tory advisers are still insisting Canadians deserve the chance to consider the 2011 budget, and their fiscal plan is destined to become the basis of their election platform. To that end, Tory cabinet ministers are fanning out across the country Wednesday to hold promotional events aimed at selling the message of fiscal restraint and help for families.

A day before the budget, at a Monday morning meeting, Mr. Layton's New Democratic caucus had debated how the week might unfold, ultimately telling the NDP Leader they'd support whatever he thought was best.

"Caucus said we have absolute confidence that your interpretation of what we've asked for, and what might or might not be in there, is what we need," NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair said.

For weeks the NDP had heard and read all sorts of speculation and leaks about what would be in the budget - none of which appeared to add up to what the party needed to be able to back the Tory budget.

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"It was pretty clear the government were preparing to offer fig leaves and not substance," said one NDP official, who requested anonymity.

The Tories had made it clear for some time there'd be no negotiating or amending the budget, that whatever their March 22 fiscal plan proposed was their final offer.

The New Democrats entered a lockup to read the budget hoping they were wrong, that there might be some "happy surprise," as one official called it, in the fiscal plan.

Mr. Layton said the NDP would have been willing to back the Tories even in the face of ethics controversies if the government had met their budget demands. He recounted how former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin met his terms in 2005 when the NDP had requested $4.6-billion in spending.

"It wasn't $4.3-billion or $2.9-billion. [Mr. Harper]knows that we are serious and we're willing to even put aside scandals as we did with Martin to get things done. He knew full well what we needed to see," Mr. Layton said in an interview.

The NDP Leader says what he found in the budget wasn't even close to what he'd requested.

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He'd asked for money to pay for new family doctors and nurses. Instead he found $18-million to entice doctors and nurses to move to rural areas. "I don't see rural Canadians saying they can take them away from urban areas."

He'd wanted $700-million to lift low-income seniors out of poverty through the Guaranteed Income Supplement. The Tories offered $300-million.

Mr. Mulcair suggested the paucity of money for seniors was what clinched it for the NDP, comparing the money the Tories had committed in previous budgets for business tax cuts to what was delivered for older Canadians Tuesday.

"To see they had $10 for corporate tax reductions for every $1 they had for seniors ... there are still going to be hundreds of thousands of seniors in one of the richest countries in the world living below the poverty line, that's inadmissible as far as we're concerned," Mr. Mulcair said.

On Tuesday, though, the junior finance minister, Ted Menzies, made entreaties to the NDP, trying to highlight for the party where the Conservatives thought the budget met their requests.

The Minister of State for Finance met Mr. Mulcair and a colleague on the sidelines of a budget lockup for the NDP at about 1 p.m. ET. Unlike past lockups for opposition parties, this one took place separately from both the Liberals and Bloc Québécois, and Mr. Menzies tried the same approach with all the Tories' political rivals.

The NDP said it was an easy decision after reading the budget for Mr. Layton to march to the microphone within minutes of its tabling to reject it.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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