Ottawa -- in Jack Layton's temporary office there's a framed obit of his father in one corner, a bust of Tommy Douglas in the other, and from the 10th-floor windows a tantalizing view up a canyon of high-rise towers to the east block of the Parliament Buildings, a sign of how far the federal outsider has come and how far he has to go.No seat, no House of Commons office, so he has to squat in the office provided by the taxpayer to the NDP and other parties. But under parliamentary rules, no public funds can be spent on staff who work exclusively for the unelected like him. That means that the party, which also has to finance seven provincial elections this year, must pick up the tab for the new leader and his staff of two. While I'm visiting Monday morning, Layton made a note to check the Toronto-Ottawa bus schedules. They travel more frequently than the train, and the ride is $50 compared to $500 airfare.
But while his creature comforts are on the way down, the polls are on the way up -- to 17 per cent, according to the latest. For Layton, it's an endorsement that his new movement approach to federal politics is starting to pay off. It's nowhere clearer than in the way he's made the NDP the party of peace. "You don't want movements to come out and endorse you politically, because they can't do that," Layton says. "But we need to be out there helping these protests to be more successful."
But if George Bush is out on a limb with his war position, so is Jack Layton, whose position is no war, with or without a resolution from the UN Security Council. The NDP may soon be forced to explain why in other situations it has insisted that the U.S. abide by international law yet takes the position in the case of Iraq that these are not definitive. As in Canada, an overwhelming majority of Britons are opposed to non-UN-sanctioned war moves. But if UN authorization is factored in, anti-war sentiment drops.
The NDP might have been able to make a case for ignoring a Security Council resolution if the party had been building up a case for reforming the current UN structure, under which the all-powerful five permanent members of the security council -- which includes two members from Europe but none from Africa, South America or the Middle East -- wield their vetoes for their own self-interest and not that of the planet. But no one in the NDP who follows these matters is aware of any such resolution on the books.
Nor is David Warner, a former NDP MPP and speaker of the Ontario legislature who's a board member of the UN Association of Canada. He says it's difficult to talk about the problems of the international body during a crisis, when concerned citizens look to it as a check on U.S. military ambitions.
"If the UN thinks it's OK, that's pretty good with most people. When the question of war is taken out of the hands of the individual leaders, the approval ratings for military intervention go up. If you end up with a UN-sanctioned invasion, it will be a difficulty for the party."
But perhaps there will be no new UN resolution, the U.S. will go to war anyway, and Canada, as Alexa McDonough warned in the House on Monday, will be dragged in by the back door. Then the NDP could keep on collecting the fruits of being on the right side of public indignation. It's a cruel irony of federal politics that what's good for an opposition party is not necessarily good for the country -- and vice versa.
Take last week's federal budget, which Layton and his caucus members have been busy excoriating for not putting enough new money into health care and municipal infrastructure. But the senior economist for the Canadian Labour Congress, Andrew Jackson, says the budget was the best in 30 years and a much-needed "reordering of Liberal priorities from debt reduction and tax cuts to social spending." And he tells NOW that the negative reaction to the budget from certain quarters is typical of the left, which is "adept at pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory."
The good things about the budget are "the result of public pressure. And it's a mistake for progressives to say that nothing was accomplished. It shows the success of movement politics. I hope the NDP can build on that."
Maybe the NDP can. For the moment, though, Layton is off to a post-Question Period scrum. There's more reflection to be done on the movement-party nexus, but first things first -- the media beast has to be fed.