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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Jack Layton chooses not to hear the sound of his voice Add to ...

Something weird is happening when NDP Leader Jack Layton, who has never failed to fall in love with a microphone, refuses to speak into one.

Yesterday, however, Mr. Layton read a two-paragraph statement after Question Period, then turned heels on the media and left their microphones at a loss for his words. Jack Layton refusing to answer questions? To hear the sound of his own voice? Weird, even unprecedented.

But, then, strange vibrations are emanating from the little world of Peace Tower politics, as all parties face the prospect of an election Canadians do not want, and one that carries severe risks, certainly for the Liberals and the NDP.

For years, the New Democrats have been berating the Harper Conservatives, while chiding the Liberals periodically and unmercifully for propping up the government. The NDP even has a list of the number of times the Liberals voted with the government.

This voting record proves, according to the NDP's orthodoxy, that the Liberals are carbon-copy Conservatives, lacking spine, principle and all things desirable in politicians. Since hell hath no fury mightier than NDP sanctimony, the party's denunciations of the perfidious Liberals have been predictably fierce.

Yet, what have we here? All of a sudden, the NDP, faced with the prospect of an election - and the possibility (probability) of losing seats - is sounding conciliatory and sniffing around for a possible deal with those awful Conservatives, the very strategy for which the NDP gleefully excoriated the Liberals month after month after month. No wonder the voluble Mr. Layton suddenly grew quiet.

The focus of Mr. Layton's two-paragraph statement was an unemployment insurance change announced by the Conservatives. It was a bone compared with the whole body of reforms sought by the New Democrats, yet they snapped it up, calling it a "step in the right direction." The party quickly added: "There is much more that needs to be done as well," as if to say our support really can be bought - not for money, of course, but with some modest additional changes.

Yesterday, too, Mr. Layton was back on the NDP line that the party wants a minority Parliament to work - which is not what the party has consistently wanted in voting against almost everything the government has proposed. Parliament works, in the NDP's world, when the government does what the NDP wants, but it doesn't work when the government pays little heed. Such is the hubris of the small.

The Conservatives are playing coy: sticking to the script that they don't want an election and being determined to work on the economy - which means raining spending announcements on every corner of Canada.

They don't want to be seen doing anything that leads to an election. They would much rather the Liberals or the NDP or the Bloc Québécois, or all three, carry that can. Heaven forbid, the Conservatives are saying, that we would call an unnecessary election - which is exactly what Stephen Harper did in 2008. Heaven forbid, too, that the Conservatives would vote against a Liberal no-confidence motion only to find themselves kept in office by the NDP, whom a senior Conservative minister recently described as a bunch of left-wing ideologues who only drink their own Kool-Aid.

Principles, then as now, are for garbing the pursuit of political self-interest, as in the NDP's tentative desire to roll over for the government. The NDP doesn't want an election because it needs more time to raise money, some of its seats would be in danger and it can see looming the party's ultimate nightmare, a Conservative majority.

The trouble for all the parties is that their hyper-partisanship has led each to make dreadful statements about the other, to draw lines in the political sands, to carry on in ways that make compromise awkward and political face-saving difficult.

If the Conservatives devoutly wished to avoid the election that the Liberals have threatened by withdrawing support, they would negotiate one or two little deals with the NDP and carry on.

But then the Conservatives would be having a political affair with the "socialists," as Mr. Harper recently called them, and would forgo their secret wish - rolling over both the Liberals and the NDP en route to a majority.

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