Jack Layton made a big decision Tuesday. And there is a ring to that sentence that Canadians are getting increasingly comfortable with. Mr. Layton enters this campaign as the most respected, trusted and effective national leader on the opposition bench. It was therefore fitting that the fate of Jim Flaherty's sixth budget ended up in his hands.
What were the issues at play in that decision? We'll get the definite word in Mr. Layton's memoirs, but here is a little speculation.
When you get into the details, most important political and policy decisions are complex, and have to be assessed at several levels. This one was probably no different.
So there was, to begin, the substance of the matter. Which was about whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government should be allowed to continue to govern Canada for another year or two, with the explicit support in Parliament of the New Democratic Party.
Of all the parties, the New Democrats are the least likely partner for Mr. Harper's government. There is little common ground between this ministry and its most effective opposition. So, for example:
» New Democrats fundamentally reject this government's core economic policy, which would have it that spending well in excess of $20-billion a year on passive tax giveaways to the most fortunate among us will lead to prosperity for the rest.
» New Democrats also fundamentally reject this government's fiscal policy, which is (in our mild Canadian way) reckless spendthriftery on the model of American neo-conservatism. This government is simultaneously aggressively cutting taxes for wealthy Canadians and profitable companies, while increasing its spending by 6 per cent a year.
» The federal government will soon re-negotiate the terms under which it will help fund public health care between 2014 and 2024. New Democrats don't trust Stephen Harper with that critical negotiation.
» Mr. Harper's government has walked away from Canada's obligations on climate change, in order to promote the export of raw bitumen from Alberta to Texas. This is environmental madness, and straight economic theft from the children of all Albertan families as their provincial resources are peddled for a fraction of their worth.
» Mr. Harper's government has greatly harmed Canada's good name in the world on many issues.
» And, last but certainly not least, Prime Minister Harper has presided over what Donald Savoie accurately calls a "court government", while attacking Canada's democracy, its system of responsible government and its parliamentary system at their roots. A remarkable descent by a Conservative leader who built his brand in large part by promising to do better.
Not a lot to like there.
It is also true that New Democrats made some important commitments to Canadians in the last three elections that they needed to keep. Mr. Layton's party promised that if given a key role in Parliament, they would try to make Parliament work.
As is well known, Mr. Layton's preferred way to keep that promise was to remove Mr. Harper's government from office, and to replace it with a new progressive government. Michael Ignatieff, unfortunately for Canada, didn't agree.
So what to do then?
Not, as Mr. Ignatieff would have preferred, annual elections. Canadians have been clear -- as evidenced by the Liberals' party and leadership polling numbers -- that they expect better. Mr. Layton therefore set out to make the best of a bad situation, and to see what could be negotiated from Mr. Harper's government.
Mr. Ignatieff's 2008, 2009 (with a blip) and 2010 policy of unconditional support for the Harper government made this extremely difficult, since Mr. Ignatieff left opposition parties with little leverage to negotiate with Mr. Harper. But some important improvements for employment insurance were achieved in the fall of 2009. And, if only out of a sense of responsibility, it was worth investigating to see if some further gains could be made in this budget.
New Democrats told the government and anyone else who asked, publicly or privately, that this was not a discussion about political fig leaves. Mr. Layton was looking for steps forward in the tradition of his party. In other minority parliaments this led to public pensions, public health care, and such steps as the Canadian government has been willing to take to build a more Canadian-owned and higher-value-added economy.
Now, Mr. Layton was looking for real progress on similarly important issues.
He was looking for a real solution to the crisis facing all Canadians as the private pension system in this country continues its collapse. He was looking for a real solution to one of the fundamental problems of our health care system -- the inability of many Canadians to find a health provider. And he was looking for some concrete steps to help average families weather the recession.
So, on pensions: a firm federal commitment to double the Canada Pension Plan (mindful this must then be negotiated with provinces) and a real enhancement to the guaranteed income supplement.
So, on health care: a serious federal offer to fund what needs to be done to plug the gaps caused by shortages of doctors and nurses.
So, on affordability in this economic crisis: relief from the HST on home heating; and a companion program to help people reduce their energy needs, by retrofitting their homes.
To give credit where it is due, Prime Minister Harper met with Mr. Layton and heard him out on these issues. What he did not do was then conduct an adult conversation with Mr. Layton to see if agreement could be found on them. In today's populist right-wing language, a dialogue on issues with some give and take is "backroom plotting." The idea that parliamentarians should work together to solve problems is anathema. And the only dialogue to be had between the government and an opposition party is a last-minute ultimatum. Here's the budget, take it or leave it.
As Paul Martin discovered in 2005, that doesn't work with the New Democrats. The NDP, deeply rooted in a world that includes a fair bit of negotiation, doesn't do business that way. And on the substance of the matter, the Conservatives didn't respond seriously to any of Mr. Layton's issues. That being so, the government left Mr. Layton with little choice -- as it no doubt intended.
So much for the substance of the matter. What about the politics?
As I have written here before, a careful read of public domain polls over the past three years doesn't point to any fundamental change in the political chessboard -- yet. For most of the recent past, Mr. Harper has enjoyed roughly the same support that Stockwell Day and Joe Clark did together at the start of the last decade -- about a third of the electorate. Mr. Ignatieff has presided over the continuing slow unravelling of the former Liberal coalition (the Liberals were a 50 per cent party a decade and a half ago; they lost a bit less than half of that support under Messrs. Martin, Dion and Ignatieff). The New Democrats more than doubled their vote under Mr. Layton and have been holding their increased support nicely.
Will things stay that way? The next few weeks will tell the tale, as Canadians focus on federal politics and make up their minds about what they want to see in the next Parliament.
Mr. Layton is the most liked, respected and trusted national leader on the opposition bench. The New Democrats are working from the base of the largest caucus of incumbent MPs they've had in two decades. The New Democrats came in first or second in over a hundred ridings in the last election -- excellent room for growth. They will field the best-funded campaign in their history, led by a seasoned team who have worked together in three recent previous campaigns. Given that Mr. Ignatieff agrees with Mr. Harper on substantially all of the key issues before the country, Mr. Layton is, on the issues and in much of the country, the most credible alternative to Mr. Harper.
Which is to say that while Mr. Layton and his party weren't anxious to have this election, and worked seriously to see if Canadians could see some progress in this Parliament, they enter this campaign in excellent shape.