Politics·Point of View

Life under a Jack Layton government

Opinion: Michael Byers tells us what a Jack Layton government would look like.

My childhood fears revolved around the monster in our basement, that dark and mysterious place at the bottom of the stairs.

This week's attack ads seek to tap into that same primordial anxiety about the unknown. We're told that the NDP platform is "science fiction," that an NDP government would be "amateur hour," that Jack Layton eats babies.

OK, I made that last part up — though on close examination, the other claims are just as ridiculous.

New Democrats have formed provincial governments for decades across this country, and have generally succeeded in addressing peoples' needs and interests while delivering balanced budgets.

Tommy Douglas lifted Saskatchewan out of the Depression while pioneering public health care and balancing the books through five majority governments.

In B.C., Dave Barrett introduced the Agricultural Land Reserve, government car insurance, the institution of "question period" in the provincial legislature, and a host of other initiatives that remain in place today.

In Manitoba, Ed Schreyer developed the province's hydroelectric wealth and public auto insurance while investing heavily in affordable housing. Gary Doer later won three majorities on economic policies that delivered the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

Jack Layton, on his way to a media scrum in Winnipeg, on April 27, 2011. Rising in the polls faster than anyone imagined. (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)

Such was the unquestionable quality of Doer's performance that Stephen Harper chose him for Canada's most important diplomatic appointment — ambassador to the U.S.

Some exceptions

There have been exceptions to the record, of course, most notably Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, who crashed and burned as NDP premiers before becoming Liberal MPs.

But other parties have had their failures, too: Pierre Trudeau drove the country deep into debt, while Alberta's Ed Stelmach still can't balance the budget in Canada's richest province.

Expect an NDP federal government to rely on the experience of respected former leaders such as Roy Romanow, Stephen Lewis, Mike Harcourt, Tony Penikett, Audrey McLaughlin, Alexa McDonough and Ed Broadbent, as well as the current premiers of Nova Scotia and Manitoba, Darrell Dexter and Greg Selinger.

Most importantly, Canadians have come to know, like and trust Jack Layton.

In the last eight years, the former Toronto councillor and president of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities has rolled up his sleeves, rebuilt the federal NDP and turned it into a truly national, broadly inclusive party that meshes perfectly with his own personal background.

Remember, the Quebec-born Layton is the son of a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister from the Brian Mulroney government.

He is also someone who holds a PhD in political science and always plays the long game.

What to expect

From a Layton government, Canadians can expect an ambitious but pragmatic governing agenda that is directed at demonstrating that the NDP can exercise power responsibly and effectively.

Expect Layton to adhere to his commitment to balance the federal budget within the next four years, by returning the corporate tax rate to the 2008 level and eliminating the roughly $2 billion in subsidies to the oil sands — though this might depend what his minority partners, the Liberals, have to say.

Expect investments in employment insurance, affordable housing and health care that reflect an understanding that helping people when they're down is the best way to get them back on their feet and contributing again.

When it comes to climate change, Layton understands the scale and immediacy of the crisis, and also the opportunities.

Expect a new emphasis on green jobs, with significant investments in environmental retrofits and public transportation, in the latter, by redirecting some of the existing federal gas tax.

Expect a cap-and-trade system that will use market forces to push businesses towards significant emission reductions and reward those who are the best at this.

What else

Expect a new engagement with Quebec, including talks on bringing the province into the Constitution.

No less significantly, expect legislation on proportional representation: the NDP, after years of being held back by our centuries-old first-past-the-post system, is not about to miss its chance at electoral reform.

On foreign policy, look for a distinct improvement in Canada-U.S. relations. There are numerous personal connections between the Layton and Obama teams, including Gary Doer who, after two years in Washington, is perfectly poised to deliver for his New Democrat colleague and friend.

Expect new Canadian leadership on a host of global issues, from a nuclear weapons convention to international development assistance to stepped-up efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

In Afghanistan, the NDP's commitment to an "immediate" withdrawal of Canada's soldiers coincides perfectly with the current deployment out of Kandahar.

The Conservative plans to purchase stealth fighter jets would be carefully reviewed to ensure that Canadians only pay for equipment that makes sense. For the same reason, Canadian shipyards would soon be busy building new ships for the Canadian Forces and Coast Guard.

In the Middle East, expect a policy that is more consistent with that of the U.S. and U.K.

An NDP government would support Israel's right to exist while playing more of a role in the peace process. It would also be prepared to criticize transgressions on all sides.

In general, Canada's approach to the world would take on a new and generally optimistic tone — one that reflects Layton's approach to people and politics. Canada would once again play a role as mediator, conciliator, peacekeeper and partner.

Canada might once again win a seat on the UN Security Council, because, sometimes, you can alter reality overnight.

One day, when I was about 10, I told my mother that I was no longer afraid of the monster in the basement. "Is he gone?" she asked.

"No," I replied. "But I turned on the light."