Instead, the Harper government stood on the sidelines while a number of provinces introduced growing privatization and inequity.
The coalition government would have been debating how to get the federal government out of deficit and into the black. It would have known that Canada was borrowing and spending less as a percentage of its economy than most industrial democracies, and that prematurely ending stimulus programs could prolong the recession (as it did in Japan in the 1990s). So, always assuming our views prevailed, deficit reduction would likely have been planned in orderly phases, and Canada would have gotten there through an approach that balanced smarter spending with a tax system designed to be in the middle of the pack of industrial democracies - not one designed to undercut every tax regime in the industrialized world.
I have watched the process of balancing a budget broken by a reckless Conservative government while working for Roy Romanow in the near-bankrupt province of Saskatchewan in the 1990s. It wasn't fun. But the province emerged immeasurably stronger from it - with a fair and sufficient tax base, efficient and well-administered public services, and an increasingly prosperous economy. We could have that federally, too.
Instead, the Harper government is cheerfully running up the federal deficit while cutting taxes for profitable businesses and high-income individuals (the people who need help least), knowing well that not only does a runaway structural deficit allow backbench MPs to hand out lots of partisan cheques today, but that it provides a rationale for the Conservatives to take an axe to public services tomorrow.
On all of these issues and many others, Canada would have been much better served by the change of government Jack Layton proposed in the fall of 2008.
Mr. Layton's proposal was entirely democratic, constitutionally legitimate, and in keeping with the principles and traditions of the Westminster parliamentary system. Our system of government assigns democratic legitimacy to our elected MPs in our country's House of Commons - the only national democratic institution we have - not to the transient figure bunked in at 24 Sussex.
Mr. Layton's coalition proposal was well-prepared and carefully-considered.
It was a sincere and honourable effort to bridge the divides between parties in Parliament, and to get a working majority of them together on some of the key issues facing the country. It would therefore have led to a better government, with a stronger base of support in our national Parliament.
There were numerous political, policy and constitutional implications of what occurred. I spoken about some of the Parliamentary ones above. Another, I submit, is that Mr. Layton has prototyped in Canada a model of government (not necessarily or inevitably involving his own party) that has long served most of the world's industrial democracies well.
Canada does not have to have a fundamentally illegitimate, hyper-centralized, artificial "majority" government elected through the quirks of our antiquated electoral system, against the wishes of the real majority of our citizens. We are not eternally condemned to elected dictatorship or to Napoleonic politics.
Nor does Canada have to be governed by isolated minority administrations, surviving through inaction or Parliamentary blackmail and brinksmanship.
We can have both a democratically representative multi-party democracy, and a stable, effective national government. By looking to our political parties to find ways to work more closely and effectively together.
In working for this Jack Layton demonstrated, and has continued to demonstrate, the strength of his leadership and the deftness of his touch in a complex Parliamentary environment.
This fall, Mr. Layton showed his floundering Liberal colleague how to get results in a Conservative-governed minority Parliament. Canada will have a significantly improved employment insurance program to help working people struggling in the recession.
The New Democrats are therefore nicely holding on to their support - at double the level witnessed ten years ago - and are working for more results for Canadians in an increasingly favourable political environment.
Canada, the New Democrats, and Jack Layton have moved on from the coalition project, given that there are now no plausible or willing partners available to work with.
But Canadians know they have in Mr. Layton a positive, optimistic, and audacious federal leader, not afraid of big ideas, and keen to make progress for Canadians using the means citizens in their wisdom choose to give him at election time.
Given the alternatives on offer, I think that's the kind of prime minister we need running the place.
Maybe it's time to give him a try.
(Editorial cartoons by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp
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