UP FRONT

A PRICE TOO HIGH?

Propping up the Liberals may not be the best strategy for Jack Layton's NDP

Peter Mansbridge November 7 2005
UP FRONT

A PRICE TOO HIGH?

Propping up the Liberals may not be the best strategy for Jack Layton's NDP

Peter Mansbridge November 7 2005

A PRICE TOO HIGH?

UP FRONT

Mansbridge on the Record

Propping up the Liberals may not be the best strategy for Jack Layton's NDP

Peter Mansbridge

IT’S BEEN A FEW years since members of the press gallery and the parliamentarians they cover chose to end the “off the record” nature of their annual black-tie dinner. The evening of drinks and double entendres had always been one for the participants to keep to themselves. Sometimes the rules didn’t hold, but the infractions were mostly innocent—like the year word leaked that governor general Ed Schreyer’s speech had been so stupefyingly serious that the audience threw dinner buns at the Queen’s representative. But by the 1990s, secrecy was a practice that had reached its expiration date, with many arguing that it only underlined what looked like a too close, too cozy relationship.

So, now, it’s all very much on the record, with the centrepiece speeches even aired on TV. It’s a night when you see politicians in a different light, full of self-deprecating wit and, even more surprising, looking as if they like each other. This year’s offering, just the other night, had Paul Martin making fun of himself by showing some clearly unflattering photos; Stephen Harper lampooning his alleged blandness by saying he was the only person in the room who looks like his passport photo; and Michaëlle Jean admitting, vice-regal tongue in cheek, that she only got the job because she’s “hot.”

Which brings us perhaps the funniest speaker—Jack Layton.

Playing the tune of King of the Road on his guitar, the NDP leader sang: “No principles, no guts, no spine / No tape recorders when we dine / Make us an offer we can’t refuse /

Anything to get me

into the news / You need bills to be approved so let’s move / Make me a deal.”

Funny? Absolutely. But some may have found it even more telling that 72 hours later, Layton was sitting down with the Prime Minister, looking to cut the deal that would see his party keep the Liberals in power. These may well be the best of times and the worst of times for the NDP. They have never wielded as much power, having this spring exacted a real price for Liberal survival by rewriting the budget. But now, as they know, they run the danger of overplaying their hand because, if, as the polls suggest, the Liberals support is up, it’s almost certainly at the expense of the NDP. Layton and his colleagues are looking deep into their collective soul—is their goal to achieve parliamentary power through the electoral process, or is it to have policy clout through a deal that would keep them in bed with the Liberals?

It’s a question that’s bedevilled the party for decades. David Lewis eked out social change by informally propping up Pierre Trudeau’s 1972 minority government. Ed Broadbent might have been ready to talk but Joe Clark never gave him a chance by bungling his minority in 1979. In both cases, the NDP was left to pick up the pieces after the election outcomes that followed—both Trudeau majorities.

What would happen to Layton’s NDP if he cuts a new deal? So far there isn’t one— the Martin-Layton meeting ended in disagreement, and you have to wonder whether Layton deliberately set the price of continued support too high. The threat of a fall election seems to have diminished, and waiting until spring just might give the NDP time to establish a new strategy—one that focuses on attacking the Liberals, not supporting them. fil

Peter Mansbridge is Chief Correspondent of CBC Television News and Anchor of The National.

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