Saturday, February 19, 2011

Layton caves on corporate tax cuts

Murray Dobbin's Blog

When Jack Layton announced yesterday that he was no longer pressing the Harper government to cancel its next round of corporate tax cuts (cost: $6 billion) he revealed that the NDP cannot figure a way out of the trap it has been setting for itself since Stephen Harper got elected five years ago. Stuck at 15-17% in the polls it has tried putting together clever packages of unconnected policies hoping they will do the necessary magic and get the party to 20% – where it needs to be in order to be a real force in the House of Commons.

They all failed, because there is no magic mix of disconnected policies. People can’t be bought with a tax reduction on their home heating bills.

Layton hopes that Canadians – fed up with the gridlock in the House and cynical about the whole ugly mess – will give him and the NDP credit for actually trying to get something done. It’s the same strategy they used with the Liberals and that time it worked because the Liberals – as right-wing as they were – were still interested in governing. That is how they held on to power for so many decades – they actually believed that government had a role to play in a capitalist society.

Stephen Harper believes passionately in precisely the opposite view. He is determined to dismantle the activist state and turn us into a mini-USA. His plan is as sinister and manipulative as any implemented by any prime minister in history. While he does all he can regarding diminishing government with his minority status, he also uses that power to re-engineer civil society to neutralize its progressive impact and then strengthen its right wing and Christian elements. That’s the most important part of the KAIROS story – not the pathetic machinations of Bev Odious.

There is a good chance that Layton’s sacrifice of the corporate tax cut issue will simply turn out to be Harper suckering him into a “deal” that never was. Layton sacrificed by far the most important element of his package (the others were the home heating tax cut, increases to the OAS and CPP and hiring more family doctors). While all of these are important issues, they are again just a disparate collection with no challenge to Harper’s larger agenda. (Three appeal exclusively or mostly to seniors who will disproportionately vote Conservative even if Layton is successful.)

By allowing Harper to go ahead with is his corporate tax cuts, Layton gives this incredibly destructive prime minister the one thing he really wants and allows Harper to maintain undiminished his ideological assault on the country and its political culture.

The most important thing Layton could have done was set Harper back on his heels in his blitzkrieg against the activist role of government. Instead he has acquiesced to it and reinforced it – a huge gift to Harper.

The timing could not have been worse. Just as Harper is – once again – revealing that he has no impulse control when it comes to just pure stubbornness and contempt for democracy; just as he is revealing his government to have completely abandoned any claim to ethical behaviour, or accountability, Layton throws him a life line.

Layton, by far the most trusted politician on the federal scene, will now be seen by many as going hat in hand to a man who not only condones lying but effectively endorses it. He looks desperate. More even than the Liberals, the NDP does not want an election and Harper, of course, knows it.

You only play a hand if you believe it is strong and can convince others of that, too. But what did Layton say of his meeting with Harper? “Our talks were cordial and respectful. The Prime Minister offered no assurances, but I am confident that my proposals were received and well understood.”

That’s it? No one who pays even scant attention to federal politics will believe for a minute that Harper was “respectful” of Jack Layton. This man is a sociopath and is contemptuous of almost every other human on the planet. He was laughing because he knew he held the winning hand.

Layton knows that, too. For fear of being contradicted by Harper he had to choose his words carefully: “ proposals were received and well understood.” Well, that’s about as minimalist as you could possibly get. They weren’t even “well received.” Even referring to Harper – who has openly violated democracy and its institutions too many times to count – respectfully as “The Prime Minister” gives him far more than he deserves. You can’t look like a statesman when your conversing with a dictator.

In perception, it weakens Layton and strengthens Harper. If Harper decides to reject the four point program being demanded by Layton, the NDP will look even weaker. They would argue that they were trying to “make Parliament work” but it will still be spun by the media and the Liberals as a failure. And the NDP will be forever stuck with folding on the corporate tax cut – giving the Liberals, already ahead on the issue, a near monopoly on this critical issue and the tax issue in general. This is a tragic strategic error on the part of the NDP.

Just in practical terms folding on the opposition to tax cuts while demanding four programs that will cost money, is contradictory. The pension and home heating pieces made sense if the government suddenly had an extra $6 billion to spend by canceling the tax cut. Where does the NDP think the money for its four demands is going to come from now?

A pre-occupation with tactical politics is a slippery road to be on. As long as the NDP stays on it, so long as it fails to take a real risk and trust people to respond to visionary politics, it will be rejected by most Canadians and very likely lose seats in the next election. For the man who should be prime minister, that can’t be a pleasant prospect.

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