NDP Leader visits UNB to hash out Harper’s economic plans and offer his alternative
(originally published Feb. 22/2009 in the Aquinian)
In one way or another, Jack Layton hasn’t left the pulpit in ages. He can recall stepping up to it for the first time, when his mustache was more salt and pepper than grey, to rattle off numbers and swing his gavel as what little time he had left wound down- going, going, and then gone.
“I’m still an auctioneer to this day, long before I had any success in politics,” he said after stepping away from the podium at the Wu Center on Jan. 16, where he threw in his bid on how to fix the economy. “It helped me learn how to talk fast enough for the house of commons.”
But all the fast talk in the world can’t seem to help him lately- the coalition is all but dead, the economic crisis may only be dawning, and his party only made a dent in the last election despite Dion’s floundering Liberals.
Yet in his visit to Fredericton last Monday (as part of a cross country college tour to promote the NDP’s views on the economic crisis), Layton said he is the best alternative to his laissez-faire peers in parliament, especially after the release of last month’s federal budget.
“Clearly Ignatieff had made the decision to form a kind of loose coalition with the Conservatives,” Layton said. “There’s some serious issues in that budget he’s supporting that I was surprised the Liberals could allow themselves to vote for.”
It was a budget that the NDP leader steadfastly refused, even before it was released and he had the opportunity to read it- a move many considered to be more in his best political interest than the public’s.
But Layton found more than enough holes in that budget’s 1100 pages-what he calls an intentionally bloated length to keep average citizens from reading it- after its release to justify such a move.
He took issue with its removal of human equity from the Human Rights Code. Layton said such a change would leave Canadian women in need of leverage to acquire equal pay for equal work without a single courtroom to turn to. Or Layton said such a change would leave Canadian women without a single courtroom to turn to if they wanted leverage to acquire equal pay fo equal work.
“That’s wrong, you should be able to access tools to human rights,” Layton said during his lecture. “What does that have to do with stimulating the economy? It does have allot to do with the Conservative agenda to undo progress, in the hopes that the very economic crisis they claim to be fighting will overshadow everything else, so they can sneak it in.”
He also said Harper’s new budget does nothing to make post secondary education more affordable, that it does little to crack down on Canada’s carbon footprint, and even less to create more affordable housing. But he said the budget’s biggest bust is the $11 million it offers Canadians through employment insurance.
“Employment insurance is there to help you, you pay for it on every cheque,” he said. “Many Canadians who have been laid off paid for it without complaint for years. But when they need it themselves, almost 70 per cent of those who apply find they don’t qualify.”
Layton said most of what was deducted from those cheques went to cover the difference for companies that had been offered tax cuts. That leaves those who need to be ensured with a paltry $11 million, only 30 cents per Canadian, compared to the $200 billion used to bailout banks that have turned so many of those Canadians away.
“Lobbyists for banks are doing better than the unemployed,” Layton said. “I think it’s time we spoke up for those left behind.”
The budget caused many of Harper’s followers to speak up and, contrary to Layton, criticize the Prime Minister for spending too liberally. Maclean’s writer Andrew Coyne called the $12 billion devotion infrastructure, $8 billion offering to housing and construction, and billions more to forestry, auto and manufacturing aid a “Monumental, even reckless gamble.” The title of that article was “The end of Canadian conservatism: How Harper sold out to save himself.”
But Layton said, after giving several examples at the Wu lecture, that Harper’s hard-right, hedonistic heyday is far from over.
“I’m here today to tell Mr. Coyne not to worry, because conservatism is alive and well and you can see it in this budget.”
But Layton was a little less eager to touch on how, in one way or another, he helped breathe life into Canada’s new era of conservatism in the first place.
It was during the release of the 2006 federal budget, the last to be remotely as pivotal as the current one, and the last time Layton dug his heels in so deeply against the ruling party. The subsequent election cost Paul Martin his leadership, causing the former finance minister to declare the Conservatives and the NDP were in cahoots to end the Liberals’ decade reign.
“We were not siding with Steven Harper, we were doing the precise opposite of that,” Layton said after the Wu lecture, when asked to reflect on those days. In fact, he said he broached the much smaller partisan divide between Martin and himself at first, asking the Liberal leader to forgo his budget’s corporate tax cut in favor of post secondary education, housing, and transit.
“He did, and so that budget went through,” Layton said. “Then I said (to Martin), ‘We’ll continue to support you, even though you’re fundamentally flawed as a political party, if you work with us on any one of five major items.’”
Layton proposed a private health care ban and more spending on post secondary education and the environment. But rather than working with the NDP on those issues, Martin opted to go to the poles in the hopes of beating Harper.
“After that, I told (Martin) we couldn’t show confidence in him,” Layton said. “It so happened that Steven Harper was also voting non confidence, but this was about as far form an (NDP) alliance with the Conservatives as you could possibly imagine. The Liberals tried to portray it as that, they went around campaigning it, but it simply wasn’t true.”
Regardless of whether it was a bipartisan power play or a simple coincidence, as Layton claims, the NDP leader’s non-confidence vote helped send Martin packing- leaving 24 Sussex Drive wide open for Harper to move on in.
After that vote, a paltry turn in two elections, and a coalition that was nipped in the bud, the current budget may be Layton’s last chance to make a real breakthrough on the hill. It may be his last crack at cleaning up what he sees as Harper’s mess- one that couldn’t have been made without the NDP’s very same vote of non-confidence, whether either party leader is willing to admit it or not.
Layton’s first step is to insist on a bold housing initiative, where thousands of Canadians load cocking guns and install installation, in an eco-revamp of each and every building from coast to coast.
Layton stays steadfast behind the notion- regardless of its feasability- because he feels it would not only put thousands of Canadians back to work, it could jump start a new ‘Green Collar’ economy. He pointed out that in Germany- where right leaning president Horst Kohler leads a coalition government with the nation’s Social Democrats- the exact same plan pays for itself in energy savings, and more importantly helps save the environment.
But the cause Layton truly champions is proportional representation, saying it would help make rural votes in provinces like New Brunswick count for more in an election compared to densely populated ridings like metro Toronto. Of course proportional representation might also give the NDP the edge it so desperately needs at the polls, but Layton claims there’s more to it than that.
“I think every Canadian citizen should have an equal voice in our parliament. That certainly isn’t the case now,” he said. “With proportional representation, people will vote for the party they believe in, and that’ll restore some of the deteriorating confidence that people have in politics in Canada. And I think it would mean parties would work together instead of just calling each other names.”
Of course, he’s referring to a different kind of cooperation than Ignatieff’s recent reaction to Harper’s budget.
“For the fifty third time on a confidence vote (the Liberals) stood with the Conservatives, yet they claim to be an alternative,” Layton said. “We’ll have to wait and see come election time.”
Canadians may be far from longing for another election, and Layton would be even less keen if it resembled the returns from last October.
“In the U.S., 53 per cent of the population voted for change,” he said of Obama’s win last fall. “Sixty two per cent of Canadians voted for a change from Steven Harper in our last election, and we got the same old. In the next election we need proportional representation- we need those kind of changes in this economic crisis, now more than ever.”