Saturday, April 25, 2009

Layton deflating

Certainly the NDP does not seem to be going anywhere in the polls and it is probably bleeding support to the Liberals. Ignatieff seems to be going up in the polls just by letting the Conservative government make its own errors and suffer from the economic downturn. I can't see all that much new or positive coming from Ignatieff. He has seemingly dropped completely the Green Shift for the Right Shift and even lends support for the oil sands. However let the NDP show any sign of trying to grab right voters by retreating on the environment and all hell breaks lose in the media.


Layton deflating


By Susan Riley, The Ottawa CitizenApril 24, 2009

Jack Layton returned from Easter break looking less tired, but no more happy. It has been a difficult, disappointing period for the energizer bunny of national politics. Nothing is going his way, no matter how hard he tries.
For some, it is Layton's personality: too intense, negative, humourless. But despite this, until recently, he has still registered in the polls as a competent leader, even among those who would never vote for him.
And he has his fans who appreciate his fearlessness in tackling powerful interests, his genuine concern for the disadvantaged, his resolute advocacy on health care, homelessness and pension reform -- ongoing concerns for many Canadians that happen to have fallen off official Ottawa's radar. (He has recently been touring the country, collecting stories of recession-related hardship that he plans to convey, forcefully, to the prime minister.)
Indeed, if the NDP was going to make a breakthrough you would think it would be now, when activist government has suddenly become fashionable. Instead, Layton finds himself outflanked by Stephen Harper, of all people, whose recent budget launched an unprecedented spending spree and deficits as far as the eye can see.
This leaves the NDP leader to sputter that the stimulus isn't enough, that more needs to be done immediately. To which there are two rejoinders. How much more can we afford? And, as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tartly noted: "I don't know why (Layton) would ask for a second stimulus package, when he voted against the first one."
Not for the first time, Layton fell into a trap of his own making when he decided to vote against the Harper stimulus budget before even reading it. He was trying to convey his utter lack of trust in the prime minister -- mistrust that was well-placed, after the government's ill-conceived and mischievous November economic statement. But Layton ended up looking irresponsible himself, leaving himself open to Flaherty's jibes.
Some date the flagging NDP momentum to the failure of the Christmas coalition -- a personal setback for Layton, too, who has never been closer to a cabinet seat. But his problems started before then.
Layton's decision to make common cause with Stephen Harper against their mutual enemy, the Liberals, in the previous Parliament may have done more than anything to confound his admirers and undermine his image. And it looks as if he is about to rekindle the friendship.
You can understand his dilemma: Liberals routinely steal votes from the NDP and, in the unpolished St├ęphane Dion, Layton had an uniquely vulnerable target. But Dion was a different kind of Liberal -- progressive, green, high-minded and close to the NDP on social policies. It didn't sit well with prominent New Democrats that Layton's attacks on Dion were so much sharper than his pro-forma tut-tutting of Harper.
But Layton did attract Liberals who didn't like Dion -- indeed, NDP numbers soared to 20-per-cent territory before the former Liberal leader was dispatched. Now, ironically, under centre-right leader Michael Ignatieff, Liberals have eaten into that NDP surge and any hope for a progressive government, coalition or otherwise, is fading fast.
His uncertain footing in the polls and Ignatieff's rising fortunes appear to have Layton thinking twice about forcing an election. And, of course, Harper is in no position to tempt fate. So Layton has been, again, sending broad hints that he is ready to work with Conservatives on employment insurance reforms, enhanced protection for private sector pensions and regulation of credit card companies rather than rush to the polls.
And, again, Tories are pretending to listen. Flaherty has hinted that some oversight of credit companies (notorious for keeping interest rates sky-high while they drop everywhere else) is in the works.
We have seen this dynamic before. The Conservatives gave Layton a chance to rewrite their clean air act -- then ignored his recommendations. They have likewise ignored a recent NDP resolution, supported by all opposition parties, calling for major reforms to EI. Harper might throw minor changes Layton's way -- to shore up his own standing, too -- but you couldn't fit a Smart car on the common ground between the two.
Instead of trying to wrestle with this particular alligator, Layton should be working with progressive forces, wherever he finds them -- including within Bloc and Liberal caucuses. Instead, he has alienated potential allies (who are also political rivals, of course) with his partisan, repetitive hectoring. His fear-mongering over the carbon tax, in particular, has undermined years of enlightened NDP environmental advocacy and damaged his own reputation as a green reformer in municipal politics. Green Leader Elizabeth May isn't the only environmentalist who is profoundly disappointed in Layton.
Yet he has been vindicated on some issues, from negotiating with the Taliban, to greening the auto sector, to recognizing Quebecers as a people within Canada. It just isn't doing him any good.
Susan Riley writes on national politics.
E-mail sriley.work@gmail.com

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