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NDP Leader Jack Layton questions the government during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.
NDP Leader Jack Layton questions the government during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.

Michael Valpy

On EI, Layton has nowhere to turn Add to ...

Albatross time for Jack Layton.

The NDP Leader is going to wear the Conservatives' thin gruel offer on employment insurance around his neck whether he supports the government on the proposal or pulls it down.

If he backs the government, he'll be accused of accepting a plan that at best benefits about 60,000 workers a year while at least 400,000 unemployed Canadians have no access to the program. If he rejects the proposal, he'll be blamed for being indifferent to thousands of workers whose benefits are about to be exhausted and whom the Conservatives' plan might help.

The Bloc Québécois, in Parliament's bumper-cars game, gave Mr. Layton a few days' grace Tuesday to think about what he's going to do, meaning what narrative he can craft to put the most politically appealing face on his willingness to prop up the government for the sake of its move to extend employment insurance.

McMaster University political scientist Peter Graefe, a specialist on the NDP, said the odds are Mr. Layton will be seen as unprincipled. "It's a high-stakes gamble for him," he said.

Mr. Layton could claim that he got substantive change to EI whereas Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff made promises over the summer of what he would achieve but didn't get a cent.

"So he may be able to package it that way, as the more effective voice of the opposition than Michael Ignatieff plus the guy who can make Parliament work," Prof. Graefe said. "But the more likely response will be, 'Well, you spent the last eight months dancing on Ignatieff's head for supporting the government and now you're just doing the same thing. So it wasn't a principled position you took, it was simply an opportunistic one.' "

Confounding Mr. Layton's problems, said Toronto economist and public finance expert Hugh Mackenzie, is that by ruling out the idea of co-operating with the opposition parties, Mr. Ignatieff has taken away the NDP's once plausible threat of a coalition to topple the Tories.

Pollster Frank Graves of Ottawa-based Ekos Research agreed that Mr. Layton appears to have wound up in a fix. "It's hard to see an easy out for him."

But Mr. Graves also said he is puzzled by why Mr. Layton is shifting from his previously stalwart opposition to propping up the minority Conservative government. "And I am certain that current and potential NDP supporters will be similarly flummoxed. NDP supporters are quite negatively disposed to the Harper government," he said. "We have had the NDP running at 17 points, which is slightly better than their relative position last year at this time. So they may either be misreading the polls or there are other factors at play, [that]they have very few candidates nominated and their coffers may be drained."

Mr. Graves also said that it would be, as he put it, "a bit of a stretch" for Mr. Layton to claim that, "unlike the weak-kneed Liberals who have folded like cheap tents under Conservative pressure with no concessions," he has won real benefits for workers.

The Conservatives' EI proposal would help only "long-tenured workers," those who have contributed to the EI program for at least seven out of 10 calendar years and who have received regular EI benefits for no more than 35 weeks in the past five years. It would extend their benefits by between five and 20 weeks.

But as Toronto labour economist Armine Yalnizyan points out, the program's restrictions act against the nature of much of Canada's industry - manufacturing, the oil patch, forestry and, increasingly, the service sector - that is subject to periodic layoffs.

Plus, she said, the government is not addressing what the program was designed to be: an economic stabilizer that would prop up consumer spending during an economic downtown and a cushion to prevent middle class unemployed workers from slipping into destitution if they were suddenly hit by major expenditures.

Laurel Ritchie, national representative of the Canadian Auto Workers, said few laid-off members of her union - "only handfuls" - have been able to meet the long-tenure definition.

Canadian Labour Congress economist Andrew Jackson said his understanding of the new proposal is that it would fully apply only to unemployed workers who have initiated a claim to EI benefits since the beginning of the year.

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