Jack Layton faced difficult choices as NDP leader

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      The country has been understandably shocked and left grieving by the death of NDP Leader Jack Layton. He was a gracious man who set a fine example for politicians of all stripes.

      He contributed many things to the country. Layton helped us appreciate the threat of climate change, starting from his days as a city councillor and later as leader of the federal NDP. He showed that homelessness could be rolled back significantly. And it wouldn’t cost that much money.

      One of his greatest accomplishments was winning a landslide victory for the federal NDP in Quebec, which may have blunted the separatist threat for at least a few years. And who can ever forget his courageous stance against the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan?

      I remember covering Layton when he first became leader of the NDP. At that time, one of his major issues was giving a tax incentive to employers to subsidize workers' transit passes. The federal Liberals refused to do this.

      Layton’s pressure led to one of Stephen Harper’s more progressive moves as prime minister—offering tax credits to Canadians who buy transit passes. It was a remarkable accomplishment, considering that Harper appears to be a climate-change denier.

      What’s been lost in much of the commentary following Layton’s death was the degree to which he moderated the federal NDP’s positions.

      During the 1990s, the federal New Democrats were always more left wing than their provincial counterparts. This created uncomfortable situations for former NDP premiers like Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, and Roy Romanow.

      The ideological gap remained during Layton’s first election as the federal leader in 2004. Early in the campaign, the party released an extensive 63-page platform with policies aimed to please every left winger in the country.

      The overall promise was to create a green and prosperous economy that would leave no one behind. It’s a big dream like this that spurred the love for Layton that was on display over the past week.

      There was a pledge in 2004 to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to remove Chapter 11. This is the section that permits corporations to launch trade challenges against government policies.

      Keep in mind that companies don’t have the right to do this at the World Trade Organization. At that level, CEOs must persuade their governments to take up any trade disputes.

      The pledge to rewrite Chapter 11 of NAFTA was a brave move by Layton. It was sure to enrage the right-wing think tanks and newspaper commentators.

      The right was also sure to react to Layton's 2004 pledge to tell the National Energy Board to ensure there were adequate natural-gas supplies for Canadians before allowing unlimited exports to the United States.

      Also in 2004, the federal NDP told Canadians that they would eliminate the Liberal government’s head tax on immigrants. In addition, the first Layton platform included designated seats for aboriginal people in Parliament.

      For opponents of the war on drugs, there was a promise for a “non-punitive rule-based approach to adult marijuana use with a major emphasis on prevention, education and health promotion”.

      This was progressive stuff, but there was one item that generated more attacks than the rest of them put together: an inheritance tax on assets over $1 million. It was slammed as the Layton death tax and the tax on corpses, even though such inheritance taxes exist in other industrialized countries.

      The NDP's proposed 2004 inheritance tax would have applied to fewer than three percent of all voters.

      The NDP attracted a million more votes in 2004, but only captured 19 seats. This was seen as a major disappointment by the party brass.

      By 2006, Layton had shorn the NDP platform of many of these promises, and his party won 29 seats. By the 2008 election, Layton was focusing most of his attention on such issues as credit-card interest rates, withdrawing Canadian troops from their combat mission Afghanistan, and bringing in a cap-and-trade system to address carbon emissions. This helped his party win 37 seats.

      By 2011, the NDP platform was a mere 28 pages. There was no talk of aboriginal seats in Parliament, marijuana, or the North American Free Trade Agreement.

      Instead, there was a pledge to reduce the small-business tax rate while increasing corporate taxes. There was also a call for a Climate Change Accountability Act. Layton never seemed to lose sight of the importance of this issue. And there were plenty of promises about lifting families out of poverty, promoting postsecondary education, delivering affordable housing, and allowing more family-reunification under the country’s main immigration law.

      Layton had learned by then that talking about raising personal income taxes or imposing an inheritance tax could cost his party seats in Parliament. So he scrupulously avoided this—even though the international currents had changed substantially.

      In their 2010 book The Trouble With Billionaires, authors Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks, a tax-law specialist at Osgoode Hall, proposed an inheritance tax on those who receive more than $1.5 million—in other words, the first $1.5 million would be tax-free. The revenue would be used to create a $16,000 educational trust for every child in the country on their 16th birthday.

      They also pointed out in their book that the growing gap between rich and poor meant that in the United States, the top one percent of income earners collected 24 percent of the income. Brooks told the Straight that the top one percent of income earners collected 16 percent of the income in Canada in 2007 (the last year figures were available).

      These ratios were far, far higher than in the 1970s and 1980s. This meant that the super-rich had substantially increased their share of the national wealth in both the United States and Canada. A big reason was a huge reduction in the capital-gains tax.

      For political reasons, Layton never chose to take on this issue. I asked him in April when he visited the Georgia Straight if he would consider changing the capital-gains tax. This is an issue that McQuaig and Brooks pointed to as “particularly beneficial to Canada’s wealthiest citizens”.

      The authors even claimed that a reduction in the capital-gains tax rate in Paul Martin’s 2000 federal budget cost Canadian governments $1.7 billion in lost revenue in 2009.

      Layton refused to wade into that issue, saying his party had not proposed any changes in this area.

      I asked if there would be any other personal-tax increases. Layton wouldn’t bite, not even for the rich. He believed that this wasn’t something Canadians were ready for.

      Meanwhile, by that time McQuaig and Brooks had already proposed creating a more progressive tax system, which included a new category for high-income earners. They have suggested that people pay a 60 percent tax on income above $500,000, and a 70 percent tax on income above $2.5 million.

      U.S. economist Robert Reich has also proposed new tax brackets for high-income earners, though not quite as onerous as those suggested by McQuaig and Brooks.

      In the distant past, the federal NDP used to champion these types of policies. However, in the pursuit of seats in Parliament, Layton soft-pedalled measures like this that would enrage the right wing.

      This gentler approach has helped provincial NDP leaders such as Adrian Dix, who no longer have to answer questions about a federal NDP “death tax” or federal NDP personal-tax hikes. It probably increases the likelihood of them getting elected.

      There was a lot to like about Jack Layton. He stuck to his guns on the Afghanistan issue and never lost sight of the dangers of climate change. He also helped his party win a record number of seats in Parliament. But let’s not forget that this sometimes came at the expense of proposing some truly progressive measures—particularly in the areas of personal taxation, ending the war on drugs, advancing sex workers' rights, and giving aboriginal people a stronger voice in the Parliament of Canada.

      Now that the mourning period is coming to an end, it's time for a more nuanced look at his leadership. He was a great man, but like all great men, he faced some difficult choices.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.




      Aug 29, 2011 at 10:47am

      His strong stand on abolishing the Senate archaism should deserve more recognition. Totally in line with cleaning up the ugliness of politics.


      Aug 30, 2011 at 11:05am

      Good analysis. In my view, the NDP's reluctance to discuss progressive tax reform is a misguided concession to the corporate media. It is true that the media is more virulently right-wing today than it was when David Lewis was inveighing against the corporate welfare bums in the early 1970s. But it's self-defeating for the NDP to repudiate its core principles in order to pre-empt Pavlovian attacks from a hostile MSM.

      If the NDP buys into the deformed tax system created by Liberal and Conservative governments, it will severely limit its capacity to fund needed public services. If it pretends to buy into neo-con. dogma in order to get elected and then pulls a volte-face when in office, it will stand accused of duplicity. Remember the furor over Glen Clark's 1996 budget (which in fact was much ado about nothing when compared with the standard operating procedure of other governments, in BC and elsewhere.)

      Better for the NDP to stick to its principles, and in fact to intensify its critique of corporate capitalism now that its failures are increasingly manifest. Political gains made in this way would put the Party in a much stronger position to face down its critics when implementing social democratic policies--including tax measures like an inheritance tax.


      Aug 31, 2011 at 5:31am

      Since the Regina Manifesto the NDP/CCF has been moving to the right (centre) for various political reasons.
      During the 2006 election campaign Layton supported longer jail sentences for people convicted of crimes involving guns.
      The NDP supported the US/NATO attack on Libya in support of US imperialism.
      The only voice in parliament opposed was the newly elected Green Party MP Ms. E. May!