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Layton’s economic influence gone, but NDP policies resilient

Source: Yahoo! Finance

Written By: Tom Fennell

Canadians haven’t put a lot of faith in NDP economic policies over the years, but Jack Layton’s death has robbed Canada of a countervailing voice at time when the economy is slumping and right-leaning politicians in Canada, the U.S. and Europe increasingly have the field to themselves.

In Europe, the social safety net is being shredded as governments try to rein in soaring debt levels.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have even mused about adopting balanced budget amendments, which drastically reduce the role of government in the economy.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama has been unable to resist the right-flowing tide, and was bullied by the radical Tea Party into accepting its view of the world, where taxes are never raised but services are cut until the country’s books are balanced.

Now that same debate — albeit at much more muted level — is set to begin in Ottawa in a few weeks without Jack Layton there to at least question the Harper government on a number of economic questions. And he is probably the only member of the NDP party with the credibility to do so.

Harper’s economic agenda is anchored to a promise to balance the federal budget in four to five years. To do so will require the government to cut the federal payroll and lay off thousands of workers.

While polls show most Canadians support a balanced budget, Harper’s initiative comes at a time when the economy is contracting in Canada and worldwide. Global equity markets have been pricing in a major economic decline and the odds are now even the U.S. will fall into a double-dip recession.

Should Harper slow his deficit-cutting until there is a clear reading on the economy?

It’s a question that Layton would have certainly raised on the floor of the House of Commons. And given the bleak economic backdrop, many Canadians would have probably paid close attention to the answer.

It was Layton after all who played a large part in convincing the federal government to adopt an economic stimulus program at the onset of the 2009 recession. And it’s his counter arguments that will be missed in the debate if the economy grinds to a halt again.

It’s not just the deficit-fighting equation. With Layton’s death many of Harper’s corporate constituents will find little real opposition to a number of Conservative fiscal policies.
For example, while the measures were already passed, Layton got great mileage pointing out corporations in Canada were among the lowest-taxed in the world.

And without Layton there to raise the issue, will anyone pay attention as corporate taxes are cut further?

The development of the oil sands is another issue where his voice will be missed. Whether you agree with him or not, there is no doubt he would have drawn attention to the fact a growing number of Americans are opposed to building a pipeline from northern Alberta to Texas.

And it’s probably worth listening to their opinion — something you won’t hear from the Tories.

The same can be said for controversial issues surrounding carbon cap and trade. While supported by three provinces, the Harper Conservatives have all but abandoned it. And without Layton there to raise the issue, it’s doubtful Canadians will hear much about it, or any other global-warming issue, in any meaningful way over the next four years.

You could see the effect Layton’s absence had this summer on these large economic and environmental policy issues, particularly during Harper’s recent free trade junket through South and Central America.

Other than a few questions about human rights in countries like Colombia, there was no debate at home that might have shined a light on what sectors and workers would be affected in this country.

And whether you agree with free trade or not, the silence around the government’s recent free-trade initiatives seemed to rob the whole process of legitimacy.

Of course there are a host of smaller economic issues that Layton often addressed. One of his favourites, and in many ways the most important, was the flat-lining of middle-class incomes and seniors’ poverty.

Both of these issues will grow in importance if the economy rolls over into recession. And without Layton’s credibility on those issues, the Harper government is all but free to ignore them.

Still, Layton’s voice won’t be silenced entirely on economic and financial matters, and will live on in the culture of the NDP.

Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, points out the NDP unlike other parties, views the “leader as a spokesman for the party.”

Wiseman is not being disparaging, he’s simply pointing out the NDP, unlike the Conservatives and Liberals, only promote policies that have been signed off on at its annual policy conventions.

For example, when the Liberals slashed the deficit under Finance Minister Paul Martin, or when the Progressive Conservatives under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney entered into a free-trade deal with the U.S., neither initiative was sanctioned by the broader party membership.

So in that sense, Wiseman says the issues Layton pursued will also be championed by his successor.

“The NDP will be exactly the same,” says Wiseman. “And I don’t see any sign that the party for any ideological reason will change.”

And that is something Jack Layton would endorse.

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