Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Of this sneaky conniving and slimy contriving

Jane Taber has an interesting behind-the-scenes story of Monday's shameful Liberal shenanigans: OTTAWA -- Government House Leader Tony Valeri went to his cabinet colleagues late last week with a strategy aimed at buying time for a government teetering on the brink of defeat. But Conservative Leader Stephen Harper had concocted a strategy of his own, one that anticipated what Mr. Valeri had up his sleeve. The result was yesterday's showdown over who controls the timing of the government's defeat. It appears that Mr. Harper and his Tories won the first round, and could force an election on May 19. However, they know the fight isn't over yet. "It's going to get ugly," Conservative House Leader Jay Hill said yesterday. "They are desperate to cling to power . . . [they are just] buying day by day, like a drowning man gasping at that last breath of air." Worried that the opposition would try to force an election in early May, Mr. Valeri, according to a senior Liberal source, had proposed to his cabinet colleagues that he cancel the NDP's opposition day on May 5. They would then push it, and the five other days allotted to the opposition parties, to late in May or early June. Opposition days are regularly scheduled days that give an opposition party a chance to set the agenda, putting forward a motion of its choosing for debate and a vote. The government is worried the opposition parties will use their days to trigger the election. So Mr. Valeri's strategy gurus went to work, feverishly trying to come up with ways of maintaining the government. The strategy they developed was one that would give the Liberals time to shake the "Dithers" label, bombard the country with a series of positive announcements about everything from immigration to foreign policy and give Canadians a reason to vote for them in the event of an election. The strategy is also designed to scare Canadians, telling them that if an election were held now all the good things announced in the budget could fail. Did I say shameful? I meant shameless. Especially if Liberal wonks are now openly admitting that their strategy is a campaign of fear, and nothing else. However, on Monday night, Mr. Valeri was forced to execute his plan earlier than anticipated when his Liberal spies got wind of the counterattack by the Tories to try to control the government agenda. And so Mr. Valeri announced during a hastily called press conference that he was pulling the Conservatives' opposition day, scheduled for today. He did this after he found out that the Tories, with the support of the Bloc, were proposing a motion for that day that would give them the power to schedule next month's opposition days. There are six days left. Mr. Valeri's parliamentary secretary, Dominic Leblanc, referred to the Tory's motion as an "opposition day trick." How dare they. Everyone knows only the government is allowed to pull procedural dirty tricks, don't they? It was a trick thought up by Mr. Harper. "His mind never shuts off," Mr. Hill said. Mr. Hill said they had a "gut instinct" that the Liberals would use their power to push the opposition days into June, and take away one of the opposition's tools to call a non-confidence motion. Mr. Hill said that could have left the opposition with the "unfortunate situation of having a mid-summer election." Faced with that, the Tories went back to the drawing board and came up with another plan. At yesterday's procedure and house affairs committee meeting, the Tories tried again to have their motion passed, one that would give them an opposition day in May and an opportunity to trigger an election. The Liberals tried to filibuster while Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who had cancelled an international trip to appear before the committee on other matters, sat for two hours and listened to the wrangling. Finally, the Tories and Liberals agreed to deal with the motion tomorrow. It is expected to pass; the opposition has the majority of members on the committee. But the Liberals are claiming a moral victory. I know this may not have sunk in for members of the government just yet, but it's been a long time since they've been able to credibly claim any kind of moral victory. Monday's schemes only prove it'll be a good while longer before they can again, if ever. "We have no illusions that they have the numbers if they want to force this," Mr. Leblanc said. "But what is unusual is that they are trying to sneak in the back door with a crowbar to change the standing orders, and at least now they are going to come in the front door and take their shoes off." "Sneak in the back door?" Minority governments can be defeated in the house. That is, by and large, their primary distinguishing feature. It's neither underhanded nor immoral for the opposition to do so, though I can imagine how it might seem that way to a self-righteous member of the Natural Governing Party. And still, the Tories are suspicious the Liberals might have another procedural trick up their sleeves for tomorrow's meeting. "It's like watching the Gong Show," said a veteran Liberal about the political games now being played out on Parliament Hill. "What Canada is witnessing right now is raw, unabated . . . undisciplined, savage politics. It's war." I really hope the public remembers all this: the Liberal antipathy to one of the genuinely democratic features of parliamentary monarchy, the transparent appeal to voter greed, the disdain for having to act like the minority government they are. I've got a feeling they won't, though.

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