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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters in Ottawa on March 1, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters in Ottawa on March 1, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jeffrey Simpson

No pressure, Jack. The election's up to you Add to ...

It would appear the New Democrats will have the most to say about whether Canadians will experience another election. It would also appear they aren't quite sure what to say.

The Liberals and Bloc Québécois have already drawn their lines in the sand: They'll vote against the coming budget. If the NDP joins them, the budget will be defeated and an election will follow; if the NDP backs the budget, the government can survive. Chances are, the government will put in a few budget teasers to tempt the NDP. The choice, therefore, will be up to the NDP. Jack Layton and those around him insist the party is prepared for a campaign and would do well should one occur. What else can they say? We're not ready and will do badly?

The party has given the Conservative government four demands, without costing any of them, and left one issue hanging, corporate tax cuts. The NDP, of course, doesn't like the corporate tax cuts the Conservatives have introduced and doesn't like the ones already approved by Parliament for this year and next.

Repealing existing cuts or forestalling future ones doesn't appear to be among the NDP's bottom-line demands - in contrast to the Liberals, who wish to freeze the cuts at last year's level and not proceed with further ones, thereby allowing the Conservatives to accuse them of wanting to increase taxes.

So it's curious that the party on the left is less determined to oppose corporate tax cuts than the more centrist one. Perhaps that softer position reflects internal division over the desirability of an election, or perhaps it reflects an old worry about accusations of being "tax and spend" leftists.

Being taxers and spenders (within reason) is what the NDP should be about. The trouble with its list of demands to the government is they're all about spending with no new taxes to pay for that spending.

It's impossible to know how much the NDP's demands would cost because they're vaguely phrased, as in "increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors," and "expanding the Canada Pension Plan." The other demands are also hard to quantify: "hiring more doctors" and "removing the federal sales tax on home heating bills." How much of an increase? How much of an expansion to the CPP?

Sadly, none of these demands addresses the country's long-term competitiveness and productivity challenges, issues the NDP doesn't talk much about. It's sad because there's another way of talking about these challenges than the way business and editorial pages do by arguing that poverty is a drag on competitiveness, and that fairer, more equitable societies are sometimes more productive and competitive than more unequal ones.

Here's one suggestion for a red-blooded leftist party. The NDP wants to cushion people from rising home heating bills? Pay for the cushion with an excess profits tax on the oil industry because when international oil prices rise above, say, $90 (U.S.) a barrel, their profits are going to soar. The NDP, after all, has only one seat in Alberta and isn't going to win another one. Moreover, bashing rich oil companies while consumers feel the pinch isn't bad populist politics.

Clearly, the NDP caucus has a ticklish decision on its hands. It's hard emotionally for the NDP to vote for a Conservative budget, as the Liberals found out when they kept propping up the Harper government by abstaining or voting for measures the party didn't like because it feared an election.

The NDP has to feel uncomfortable were it to back a Conservative budget, because the two parties disagree on so much. Yes, Mr. Layton could portray himself and his party as putting the public distaste for another election ahead of partisan politics, but that wouldn't deal with internal party unease.

Mind you, an election in which the NDP lost ground would produce even more party unease. And despite the party's public bravado, there's no guarantee it would gain seats in an election. There are a bunch of Conservative-NDP fights the Conservatives might just win.

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