OTTAWA — Jack Layton says his pre-budget talks with Stephen Harper amount to “dancing on a knife edge,” but he’s convinced that his supporters and caucus will see the negotiations as a risk worth taking.
Sources say Layton is facing some growing pressure from within his own party to stop giving the prime minister the time of day, and let the electoral chips fall where they may.
But the NDP leader says he has steered his band of 36 MPs through numerous negotiations, and it’s what the public has come to expect of him in a minority government situation.
“I say, ’you’re dancing on a knife edge.’ That’s my phrase I use with caucus. ’Be careful not to slip.’ And make the best judgments that we can,” Layton said in a phone interview from Toronto.
“We’ve made different judgments each time.”
Layton’s balance-of-power manoeuvres in the past have led to a $1-billion contribution to Employment Insurance by the Harper government, and a redirection of $4.6 billion to NDP priorities by the previous Liberal minority government.
Layton says he has faced considerable public criticism for working with parties his own supporters despise — but always came out ahead.
“People expect leaders — including our own base and members — they expect us to be talking to the other leaders. They don’t expect us to go and be sitting in a silo in a corner,” Layton said.
“They know we have 36 seats in the House out of 308, so they expect us to do our best to convince others to support our proposals and our ideas. We’ve had a fair bit of success with that.”
But this time, with an election hanging in the balance, any gains for the NDP are far less certain. The Tories are trending higher in the polls, for now, and don’t appear to be in a mood to compromise much.
Layton has put forward a wish list that adds up to about $2 billion, at a time when the Tories are trying to cut costs and aren’t convinced they need to avoid an election.
The Conservatives have signalled that they’re interested in the NDP’s proposals for helping impoverished seniors — although the ideas being pondered by the Tories are not nearly as generous as the $700-million-a-year improvements to the Guaranteed Income Supplement demanded by the NDP.
Similarly, the Tories on Wednesday made an effort to invest in training more doctors and nurses for rural areas. But again, the 100 people that would be helped by the $40 million announced by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq are just a drop in the bucket compared to the 7,200 people and $200 million the NDP is asking for.
“It seems to be a very small fraction of what we’ve been talking about,” Layton said in a phone interview from Toronto. “There are five million Canadians without family physicians…. It’s not in the range of what is needed, that’s for sure.”
As for the other NDP demands, Harper’s reaction has ranged from dismissive to “defeatist,” Layton said.
The NDP wants the government to remove the harmonized sales tax on home heating, a move the party says would cost the federal treasury about $700 million a year.
But Layton said Harper seems to want nothing to do with topics linked to the unpopular HST.
“It didn’t seem to be the topic he wanted to spend much time on, let’s put it that way,” Layton said.
“He doesn’t want to be associated with the HST, even though he and the Liberals combined to ram it through Parliament.”
On the NDP’s request to expand the Canada Pension Plan over time, Harper said any movement on the CPP would depend on the provinces — even though his own government championed such an option just a few months ago.
“It seems to me that they’re taking sort of a defeatist attitude towards it,” Layton said.
The NDP leader said Harper had a similar “defeatist” approach to job creation in the wake of the recession, telling Layton that full recovery in Canada would depend on the fortunes of the United States.
And on rolling back the plans to cut corporate tax, Harper would have none of it, Layton said.
The prime minister did commit to not cutting corporate tax again, after the current round of tax cuts comes to an end in 2012, Layton said. But that was hardly any consolation for the NDP leader, who believes the foregone tax revenue could be better spent elsewhere.
Still, it’s too early to conclude that the Conservatives are not ready to work with the NDP, Layton said.
When MPs return next Monday from a week in their ridings, they’ll be analyzing Harper’s every word, and asking pointed questions about how they can move forward with their agenda, Layton added.
“You never know how things are going to unfold.”