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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to a voter while phone canvasing Sunday, April 17, 2011 in Bridgewater N.S. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to a voter while phone canvasing Sunday, April 17, 2011 in Bridgewater N.S. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

NDP vows are spoken to be broken Add to ...

The most irresponsible promise of the election campaign thus far belongs to Jack Layton.

During the French-language debate, searching for nationalist/secessionist voters who lean toward the Bloc Québécois, the NDP Leader pledged to try to reopen the constitutional debate. He would seek to "create winning conditions," he said, to let Quebec enter the Canadian Confederation.

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This promise was reckless and dangerous at every level. First, Quebec is legally part of the Canadian Confederation. Second, by using the phrase "winning conditions," he's borrowing a loaded expression from the Parti Québécois, whose leaders always vow to create "winning conditions" for secession.

Third, every responsible Canadian leader must know that, after the traumas of patriation, Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord, the Constitution is the most divisive issue in Canada. To suggest reopening it, without the slightest idea of how to proceed, what to discuss or even a plausible reason why, represents the depth of political irresponsibility.

The NDP proposes a deeply asymmetrical view of federalism. Most New Democrats outside Quebec want a strong central government; most Quebec New Democrats do not.

Squaring this circle has forced the NDP into the contortions of one policy for the rest of Canada, and one policy for Quebec: asymmetrical federalism, in other words. Since the NDP has never been taken very seriously in Quebec, and has never come close to federal power, its views on Quebec have never been of much concern. They should be now that Mr. Layton's party is showing better in the province.

The slipperiness, to say nothing of outright contradiction, of the NDP position can be seen in another way: language. The party platform contains a ringing defence of the Official Languages Act, with particular support for "linguistic minorities" across Canada. But, in the leaders debates, Mr. Layton repeatedly stressed how much he agreed with the Bloc that all federal institutions in Quebec operate under Bill 101, Quebec's language law, rather than under the Official Languages Act.

Since the NDP insists it be taken seriously as a contender for power, consider just a few of its economic promises.

It stands four-square for climate-change improvements. Bravo! It lists 17 programs, costing $6.2-billion by 2014-15, under the heading of "green initiatives." These are supposed to be paid for by a "cap and trade" system whereby permits for carbon would be traded among companies and would raise $7.4-billion.

The whole point of a "cap and trade" system is that, although total emission reductions can be targeted, no one knows what their price will be. So no one can predict how much revenue the government will raise. The Europeans started a "cap and trade" system and estimated wrong about revenue. Thus the NDP figure of $7.4-billion is a sheer guess.

Take the $700-million it would cost to remove the federal sales tax from heating fuels. This is a crazy and regressive policy, giving the millionaire the same break as the pauper. Even if related to income, there are better ways to help low-income people than this gimmick.

Take this whopper: Mr. Layton pledges to train 1,200 more family doctors over the next decade. Leave aside that medical school enrolments have almost doubled since 1997, his platform sets aside $25-million for training these 1,200 new physicians. But Ottawa just announced $40-million to train 100. So training 1,200 would be a multiple many times over of Mr. Layton's estimate, to say nothing of the fact that his platform is silent on how to pay for training the 6,000 new nurses he promises.

Take the promise to pay companies up to $4,500 for every new job created. For this, Mr. Layton has allocated $600-million. Total employment in Canada rose in the past 12 months by 305,000. Had Mr. Layton's plan been in place, it would have cost nearly $1.4-billion. If only full-time jobs had been subsidized, it still would have cost about $1-billion. At $4,500 or something less, no one really believes it would induce companies to create a job.

The NDP platform seldom gets a costed look. It's a pastiche of guesses and conjectures. As for the party's Quebec policy, it's always been tortured. With Mr. Layton's latest promise, it just became irresponsible and reckless.

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