Parliamentary politics

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Parliament resumed last week, and Jack Layton and the NDP were the target of main opposition and media criticism. With the Liberal party withdrawing their support for the Conservatives, the NDP was accused of flip flopping. Supposedly it dropped its opposition to the Conservatives in order to prevent an election in which it would lose seats. More seriously, a leading friendly critic said the NDP was giving away its hard won high ground and imperiling its chances to make major gains as the main opponent of an unpopular, right-wing Harper regime.

We can see how parliamentary posturing can be easily packaged as news, even if the more important issues get neglected. What the NDP does stand for certainly got obscured. In a minority parliament, the party saw there were ways to oppose the government -- without forcing a fourth election in five years. Pertinently, the NDP want parliament to repair the income security program for the unemployed.

It should be obvious that the risk of unemployment is not covered adequately in Canada. At least half of people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own are denied employment insurance. Meanwhile, the risks of banks who lost money through their own fault (by investing in doubtful mortgage securities and asset backed commercial paper) are fully covered by a $200 billion federal program. Within the industrial countries of the OECD the number of unemployed living in poverty is higher in Canada than any place other than the U.S.

The plight of the unemployed is not news, but it is important. Both the Conservatives and the Liberals have recognized unemployment protection matters to Canadians. The Conservatives came up with a weak reform proposal for the fall sitting of the House. Early this year, the Liberals turned down the opportunity to defeat the government and head a coalition government, and then made negotiating improvements to employment insurance a main condition for supporting the government.

Whatever position Jack Layton and the NDP adopt, the overall parliamentary landscape is unlikely to change. The Conservative prime minister of Canada does not believe in government. The Leader of the Bloc Québecois heads a party that does not believe in Canada. The Liberals under their current leader have no identifiable beliefs about what his party stands for, except that it wants to be government.

Given this hand to play, Jack Layton says he wants parliament to get to work for the unemployed. What works against him is not just the other parties, but parliamentary practice itself. Historically only governments can introduce legislation which require spending. These money bills are not easily amended even in a minority parliament where the combined votes of the opposition give it the majority, not the government.

What the NDP support for reform of employment insurance does do is create space for labour unions and others to step forward and talk about the issues that matter to Canadians: jobs and incomes. By approving the weak employment insurance reform of the Conservatives on second reading in the House, the NDP hopes to get some witness brought forward to further debate in parliamentary committee over the governments handling of unemployment, and force the Liberals to reveal what they think.

It turns out that not only have the main political parties failed Canadians, the parliamentary process needs some serious reform in order to be democratic. By using debate around unemployment to help Canadians know more about how both the Conservative government and parliament fail them, the NDP does us a service. By working with the opposition parties it shows the way forward: a coalition government to replace the Conservatives.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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