Jack Layton celebrates eight years as NDP leader

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If New Democrats get their way, Canada will not have a Spring election, Jack Layton told a standing-room only crowd at the Vancouver Public Library last Saturday afternoon.

Party members were invited to a pre-budget (or pre-election) town hall rally to meet the federal leader who is on a cross-Canada tour that ends in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on Jan. 25. That day Layton will celebrate not just Robbie Burns Day, but also the eighth anniversary of his election as NDP leader.

In her spirited introduction to the town hall event, Vancouver East MP Libby Davies reminded the audience that under Layton the NDP had tripled its number of sitting MPs. Davies underlined that the 36-member caucus was committed to seeing corporations pay their fair share of taxes in order to ensure that new money could be invested in public transit and housing.

The party "prefers to get things done for Canadians" Layton told the enthusiastic Vancouver crowd of about 300, but stands ready to fight an election. On Monday, the NDP offered the national media a tour of its Ottawa election headquarters, the caucus is meeting to approve the campaign platform after the tour ends this week, and Layton said the party would run "the most ambitious campaign ever" once the writ is dropped. In the meantime, he is ready to "reach across the aisle" to the Conservative government with some specific suggestions to make life better for Canadians, who are still struggling to recover from the recession.

Layton evoked an earlier minority parliament in the 1960s, when the first NDP leader T.C. "Tommy" Douglas reached across the aisle to a Liberal government and Canada adopted Saskatchewan-style medicare, the Canada/Quebec pension plan, a national welfare scheme, and approved Federal-Provincial financing for post-secondary education.

Today, Ottawa is "broken" Layton declared, and people across the country know it. Mean-spirited attack ads appear on television turning people off politics. While the Harper government "fans the flames of discontent, setting one group against another," New Democrats "want to bring people together, and get things done for people."

Conservatives are preparing for major cutbacks to public spending, while average middle-class families are having trouble making ends meet, and others are left behind, unable to pay monthly bills. In these circumstances member of parliament have an obligation to make life at least a bit better for Canadians, the NDP leader said, rather than playing parliamentary games that could cause an election. In this spirit the NDP would try to improve the up-coming budget.

The NDP budget agenda calls for improvements to retirement security. The GIS (guaranteed income supplement) that goes to lower-income seniors leaves many seniors still living below the poverty line. In the Spring budget Layton wants to see corporate tax cuts canceled, and money redirected to improve the GIS so that no seniors live in poverty. The NDP wants to see the Canada Pension Plan improved. Measures announced by the finance minister to add another private-pension scheme that includes no employer contributions to the existing RRSP private-pensions accounts, do not measure up to what is needed, Layton said.

In his travels across the country, the NDP leader asks Canadians: do you have a family doctor? He is always surprised and disappointed to see how many people do not. Getting more family doctors trained and accredited is something that could be planned through the budget, and the NDP want to see that commitment put in place.

The cost of heating oil is going up sharply across Canada, putting the financial security of many home owners in doubt. Layton pointed out that while it is getting more expensive to heat a home, the Harper Sales Tax (HST) add to the burden in BC and Ontario. The NDP wants to see the federal budget remove the HST from home heating charges.

Answering questions from the audience, Layton outlined some specific NDP measures. An NDP sponsored climate change accountability act has been passed twice in parliament. The first time it was left on the table by a Harper election call (ignoring the fixed date set by Conservative legislation). The second time it was killed by the unelected (now Conservative majority) Senate. This abuse of democracy by government appointees has not occurred since 1937, and unelected legislative power has never been used before to kill to a private members bill.

Current NDP initiatives include a bill by the youngest MP, Niki Ashton (Churchill), to limit tuition costs, and reduce personal debt loads for students, measures to ban oil tanker traffic along the west coast, stop the shipment of raw bitumen by pipeline across the mountains from Alberta to the west coast, and curtail the export of raw logs and encourage value added production of wood and paper products.

The NDP leader pointed out that Davies has a private members bill to improve access to housing and end homelessness ready for adoption by the House of Commons in third reading.

The NDP are telling the Conservatives to make life better for Canadians in the Budget or face an election this Spring. Layton left the crowd standing in applause as he called on Canadians to get on with "building the kind of Canada we all know is possible."

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.

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