NDP Leader Jack Layton was looking positively prime ministerial when he announced yesterday's agreement with the Liberals. It's a good thing someone was. By making this grubby little deal with the NDP, Prime Minister Paul Martin came across as weak and panicky, undercutting his recent attempts to appear like a man in charge of events.
Over the past few days, Mr. Martin has been telling anyone who would listen that, whatever anyone says, his government has a plan for the country and is determined to put it in place -- if only the dastardly Conservatives don't pull him down first. Canadians, he argued, should get the chance to hear the results of the Gomery commission before they vote in an election in which the sponsorship scandal will be a key issue. If the opposition were to force a vote before then, he said, all of the government's fine plans would go down the drain.
Now it seems that Mr. Martin isn't so attached to its agenda after all. To gain the support of the NDP and a possible new lease on life, he bargained away an important part of his recent budget, the long-overdue corporate tax cut. Just weeks ago the Martin government was arguing that Ottawa had to lower corporate tax cuts to keep Canadian business competitive at a time when other countries were giving their companies a tax break. Now, to please a minor, anti-business party with all of 19 seats in the House of Commons, he will grab back the tax cut. Worse, he will try to soften the blow by allowing sainted small businesses to keep their cut and taking it away from large corporations -- you know, those awful things run by greedy men in black top hats. Mr. Martin, who once ran a big company himself, has shown himself so keen to hang onto power that he will play along with the NDP prejudice against the banks and car makers and mining companies that are the engine of the economy, employing hundreds of thousands of workers.
"Why are we doing it?" he intoned last night in a maundering performance before the cameras. "We are doing it to make parliament work." Yes, and to save his own skin. The politics are fairly transparent. He needs all the help he can get in a minority parliament. If the NDP's 19 MPs don't put him over the top, and there is an election in June, he can always blame the Tories for blocking new spending on worthy things like housing and foreign aid.
These were areas where the government planned to raise spending anyway, the Prime Minister claimed last night. But if he had really wanted to spend on them, he would have put that spending in the original budget. Now, he will redirect at whopping $4.6-billion to the pet projects of the NDP, taking the money, it seems, from expected surpluses that might otherwise have gone to paying down Ottawa's still-substantial debt.
Mr. Martin called his soak-the-rich deal with the NDP "fiscally responsible." Politically desperate, he should have said.