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Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador-designate to the United States, laughs after speaking to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Aug. 28, 2009. Also pictured are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's deputy press secretaries Andrew MacDougall and Karine Leroux.


On one thing, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton would appear to agree: neither wants to do a "backroom deal." And it's not hard to understand why.

Both have at least one eye on an upcoming election. In the campaign, Mr. Harper would want to accuse his opponents of planning to canoodle their way to another coalition coup. And Mr. Layton would want to contrast his party's muscular opposition with flaccid Liberal support of the Conservatives, much as he did in the 2006 campaign.

So it's not hard to see how we get to the election Mr. Ignatieff seems to want - though one has to wonder why he would, in light of a poll today showing him sinking to Harper-levels of unpopularity in Québec. However, if after checking their internal polls and thinking it twice, Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton wish to avoid an election, it's not that complicated to see how they might get there either.

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For example, the two leaders could get together in a kitchen. If that venue was good enough for Roy Romanow, Jean Chrétien and Roy McMurtry to work out the deal that gave Canadians the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it should be a good enough place for the Prime Minister and the leader of the NDP to work out an arrangement.

Let's be serious: the NDP, which has no shortage of trade unionists among its members, should have no difficulty understanding its current bargaining power. Since the 2004 election of Paul Martin, none of the opposition parties has held the balance of power in the House of Commons. Now, Jack Layton is again clearly in the catbird seat.

With that strength, there's no reason for Mr. Layton not to go public with his price for supporting the government. He already sorta kinda did that yesterday, but he needs to make clear his demands as well as the quid pro quo.

If Mr. Harper bends, Mr. Layton wins. If Mr. Harper wants an election, the New Democrats would have tried their best to respond to the wishes of the majority of Canadians. In the ensuing campaign, Mr. Layton would still be able to distinguish his muscular approach from that of the supine Liberals. In Québec, he could point to Gilles Duceppe's decision, announced yesterday, to vote in favour of the home renovation tax credit, a confidence matter.

To reduce the risks further, Mr. Layton could mandate a representative to engage in some shuttle diplomacy. Or Mr. Harper could. If this approach, as practised by Henry Kissinger, was able to smooth Richard Nixon's way to Red China - as it was then known - it should be good enough for Messrs. Harper and Layton to reach a limited understanding.

And do I have the perfect shuttler to act as a go-between - no other than newly-minted diplomat Gary Doer. He has the trust of Mr. Harper, we learned last week. And the former trade unionist and premier has the necessary negotiation skills. All that's needed is the political will of Messrs. Harper and Layton to make Parliament work in a minority government situation.

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