with federalists like this who needs separatists

It's hard to tell if Jack Layton is a cunning long-term political strategist or just a glibly persuasive opportunist with horseshoes in his back pocket.

It’s hard to tell if Jack Layton is a cunning long-term political strategist or just a glibly persuasive opportunist with horseshoes in his back pocket.

Since his election as NDP leader in 2003 Layton has steadily moved the party away from some of its dead-end legacy positions. The most recent NDP platform didn’t even mention NATO or NAFTA, let alone withdrawing from them. And it even promised to “keep Canada’s corporate tax rate competitive … below the United States’ federal corporate tax rate.”

I’ll have to get a “Vote NDP for Low Corporate Tax Rates” bumper sticker for the next election.

This may not make the NDP core happy. Reports in the Toronto Globe and Mail last week suggested NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar was supporting US policy on the Israel-Palestine peace process -“We actually support Obama’s initiative,” he said. That must have made many cringe.

And on the question of a common continental security perimeter with the US, an issue that alarms many on the left, Dewar went on to tell the Globe the NDP could support greater co-operation with the Americans under certain conditions.

As UK Labour activists under Tony Blair know, there isn’t much you can do except bluster if your leader moves to the centre and keeps winning more seats in the House.

And with a record 103 MPs, no one in the NDP is going to stop Jack Layton if he wants to park his tank on the centrist Liberal lawn and prevent that party from recovering.

Layton also invested years building the NDP brand in Quebec, something that paid off with an astounding 59 Quebec MPs on the NDP side of the house.

In the big picture, moving to the centre on economic and foreign policy is probably both good politics and good policy. For example, withdrawing from NATO wouldn’t help anyone, and would weaken one of the few relatively functional international organizations to which we belong. And pulling out of NAFTA, as some on the left dream of, would be profoundly damaging to the economy.

It is the Quebec aspect of Layton’s strategy that raises really big questions.

The NDP, who are now the Opposition and have a chance to form the next government in a few years, made a serious set of promises to win over Bloc Quebecois voters. Have a look at this partial list, and decide if you like the direction Layton is taking or if it all sounds disturbingly like the NDP are channelling the Bloc Quebecois’ Gilles Duceppe from beyond the electoral grave:

1) Extend the Quebec language laws to federal institutions and federally regulated companies, like banks and transportation companies in the province. Although the Quebec language laws have been toned down so they don’t violate the Constitution’s freedom of expression and equality rights any more (Quebec had to use the notwithstanding clause in 1989, but later rewrote the law), the Quebec “language police” still raise worrying issues. Nonetheless, Layton supports further restrictions on English in Quebec.

NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair also spoke recently about the need for more language restrictions, for example about immigrants to Quebec who want to send their kids to English school.

“People who choose Quebec, because an immigrant is not forced to come to Quebec, need to understand that they will need to learn French and so must their families, first and foremost,” he said. It’s not clear exactly what additional restrictions he has in mind.

2) Water down the Clarity Act. The Supreme Court and current federal legislation said that there must be a clear majority in a referendum for Quebec to secede. The meaning of “clear majority” was deliberately left vague. The Clarity Act gives the federal House of Commons the right to decide based on things like the size of the majority, voter turnout and “other matters.” The House would also decide if the question itself was “clear,” something many federalists said the previous Quebec referendum questions were not. Layton instead supports the Bloc Quebecois position that “50 per cent plus 1 voter” is enough, and that the Quebec National Assembly can set any question it chooses.

3) Guarantee Quebec its current share of seats in the Commons even if the population in the West continues to grow. It is well known that the West and Ontario have fewer MPs than their populations would suggest. This is not trivial. A Conservative bill that died in the previous Parliament would have added 30 seats in BC, Alberta and Ontario. Instead, the NDP wants to lock in the power structure of the House in the 1990s.

Layton is a good debater, and says championing positions traditionally associated with separatists is the best way to keep Quebec in Canada.

I don’t see how making it easier to separate is good for Canada. Or how Layton will be able to prevent a damaging polarization between English speakers and French speakers in Canada by championing further restrictions on minority language rights in Quebec.

Perhaps from his point of view it is a price worth paying for his electoral breakthrough. I wonder how it will play in the English Canadian union halls and urban leftist circles that have supported the NDP for decades.

Maybe the most worrying possibility is that all the pundits calling Jack Layton an unprincipled opportunist are wrong. Remember that he suggested killing the Clarity Act as early as 2004 despite the opposition of NDP bigwigs like Alexa McDonough and Bill Blaikie.

He may actually believe in his current Quebec policy. NDP supporters in Ontario and the West may have an even harder time living with Jack “Gilles Duceppe” Layton than accepting NAFTA and NATO.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.