The morning after the night before .. was it maybe somehow all worthwhile?

May 20th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Now that Canadians do not have to rush into another federal election right away, the national commentariat has time for assorted post-mortems on the recent events in Ottawa.

As Terry Weber of the Globe and Mail has reported, the ultimate razor-thin survival of Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government on Thursday, May 19, by a final parliamentary vote of 153-152, “concludes a tumultuous period in the history of Canada’s federal government.” And one immediate theme of the accompanying instant political analysis is that Conservative leader Stephen Harper has been tested and found somewhat wanting.

Five weeks ago Jean Brault’s explosive testimony at the Gomery sponsorship scandal inquiry started the Conservatives and their Bloc Quebecois allies off on a very noisy and perhaps over-aggressive quest to defeat the Martin government. Now it has all come to naught. As usual it is too easy in retrospect to see where the effective top manager of the mission might have made a few mistakes.

At the same time, a 153-152 vote victory is hardly either a great triumph for the winners or a crushing defeat for the losers. Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe came as close as you can come to defeating the government without actually doing it. On Friday, May 20 only 41% of more than 53,000 respondents to a Globe and Mail online readers’ poll were “pleased that the Liberal minority government survived.” And Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay has aptly observed that the Liberals’ grip on Parliament remains “very, very precarious.”

In this same spirit, even those who have been sceptical about the now narrowly failed Conservative-Bloc Quebecois quest may also find some room to confess, with a little surprise, that the past five weeks in Canadian federal politics have had a few bright sides as well. To take just the leading case in point, for a short time Canadian federal politics has suddenly become more interesting than it usually is, for at least large numbers among we the people of Canada. And who can say that this may not finally prove quite a good thing for the future of the country too?

Getting to know your Members of Parliament

Each person of Canada will no doubt have his or her own ideas about just what has made especially the last two or three weeks of Canadian federal politics so interesting. And certainly the ultimate climactic event of Belinda’s Bolt on May 17, with its sidebar in the always fascinating private life of Bill Clinton in the USA, finally stamped the whole thing as very respectable copy in some conventional opium-of-the-mass-media sense.

The one thing the counterweights editors seem to agree on, beyond the undoubted fascination of Belinda’s Bolt, is just how interesting it was to learn a little more about some of the other quite intriguing democratically elected Members of the 38th Parliament of Canada.

Right in the midst of the televised great vote on May 19, e.g., Peter Mansbridge almost intimately remarked to Don Newman on how many Martin surnames there are in the House nowadays. (As it turns out, four: Prime Minister Paul Martin, who sits for the riding of LaSalle-mard in Montreal, Quebec; Hon. Keith Martin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defencet, and sitting for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca in BC; Pat Martin of the New Democrats, from Winnipeg Centre, in Manitoba; and Tony Martin of the New Democrats, from Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario.)

Similarly, whatever you thought of Gurmant Grewal’s charges about Liberal attempts to bribe Conservative MPs with the spoils of office, it was interesting to learn that both he and his wife, Nina, sit (respectively) for the adjacent ridings of Newton-North Delta and Fleetwood-Port Kells in BC. It is remarkable enough that the Conservative caucus in Ottawa diversely includes a Sikh MP, and more remarkable still that it includes a Sikh MP husband-and-wife team, holding geographically adjacent seats.

Many more such examples could be given. The main point seems to be that today’s television-driven democratic political system in Canada usually focuses on often not-very-interesting and sometimes even technical bite-sized clips of largely staged controversies among only a few political party leaders. For whatever exact reasons (and perhaps partly just because all four federal leaders understandably got tired from time to time over the tumult of the past five weeks?), we started to see a larger and more lively cast, reflecting many different parts of the wider Canadian community today. And that somehow did make things seem more interesting.

“Democratic Renewal” – one of the various intriguing files that the now Hon. Ms. Stronach has had set on her new Liberal cabinet-minister’s plate – is supposed to be helping ordinary MPs play a role in Ottawa more in keeping with their real talents, and their commitments to the local people of Canada who elected them. Who knows? Maybe it’s actually started to work a bit more than we think? It was certainly a very ordinary MP, Chuck Cadman from Surrey North in greater Vancouver, BC, who was the ultimate star of the show on May 19 – and the only person with the good sense to keep it interesting to the end. As Peter Mansbridge also said, Chuck Cadman, independent MP, does deserve some kind of Canadian national award.


When Chuck Cadman arrived in the foyer of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa early Thursday evening, someone said “Chuck Cadman is in the House.” He was immediately surrounded by a crushing scrum of reporters and journalists with all their technological apparatus.

Mr. Cadman just said “I have made up my mind. Just wait and see.” Then he pressed on to his seat in the chamber.

Not too much later, at about 6:05 PM Ottawa time, everyone had waited long enough. Chuck Cadman stood up modestly but firmly for the Yes vote on budget Bill C-48, and made clear that Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government would last a while longer yet. There will be no fresh Canadian federal election right away.

We the people of Canada can now go back to such more urgent business as planning much-needed summer holidays. But even this summer we should probably not be getting too relaxed. The big question now, almost everyone in Ottawa seems to agree, is just how much longer the government can last.

MAY 19

At long last the day of the big game in current Canadian federal politics has arrived. Live coverage of the two crucial budget votes in Parliament at Ottawa will start on television (and in some cases radio too) at about 5 PM ET/2 PM PT, and all points in between.

Barring additional surprise defections, or altogether unanticipated acts of God, it will all come down to the decisions of two grey-haired men in late middle age – independent MPs Chuck Cadman (Surrey North in BC), and David Kilgour (Edmonton-Beaumont in Alberta).

The latest hints and rumours are suggesting that Chuck Cadman will vote with the Liberals and New Democrats, and David Kilgour with the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois. If this actually is what happens, the final result will be a tie. Liberal Speaker Peter Milliken (Kingston and the Islands in Ontario) will vote to break the tie, presumably on the Liberal-New Democrat side. And Prime Minister Paul Martin’s besieged minority government will have survived its ultimate decisive confidence vote of spring 2005 by the skin of its teeth.

None of this is of course official, remotely certain, or at this point even highly likely. In public both Mr. Cadman and Mr. Kilgour are still saying that they will not be making up their minds definitively until the moment of the vote itself. If both of them vote with the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois, Canadians will be having another federal election on June 27, or thereabouts. And, bearing the last few days in mind, other surprises are no doubt conceivable too.

The two budgets bills

In following the televised proceedings, it is worth remembering that there will be two budget votes. Conservative leader Stephen Harper has explained that: “It’s our intention to support Bill C-43, the original budget …We’ll oppose Bill C-48, which was the deal with the NDP, which is completely irresponsible fiscal policy.” The Conservatives’ essential allies in the Bloc Quebecois will be following suit on Bill C-48, but not necessarily Bill C-43. It will be the vote on Bill C-48 that counts for the big political future.

What happens next if the government does survive?

Even if the Liberals survive the vote on Bill C-48 it remains uncertain just how much longer they will be able to stay in office. One thing the events of the past several weeks have made all too painfully clear is that the partisan numbers in this 38th Parliament of Canada are so close as to make any reasonably confident judgments about the prospects for almost any sustained period of stable government virtually impossible.

Prime Minister Martin himself is now committed to an election in early 2006. His current New Democrat allies have lately been hinting that they might be prepared to back an earlier date, especially if Parliament again becomes as terminally unmanageable as it was last week. And former Conservative MP Belinda Stronach’s explosive decision to join the Liberal cabinet has inevitably added to the destructive rancor that seems to haunt Canada’s capital city on all sides.

Yesterday there were even some hints on television that the Liberals may have reached a point where they themselves are not so averse to an early election – and, at least on one side of their mouths, might actually welcome a defeat in Parliament.

A “poll, conducted for CTV and The Globe and Mail by The Strategic Counsel from May 12 to May 15,” which shows the Liberals slightly ahead of the Conservatives across the country – and well ahead in BC and Ontario, and even doing somewhat better in Quebec – has likely enough been feeding such thoughts. But the opinion polls have been remarkably volatile in the recent past. And the mainstream wisdom still seems to be that Paul Martin’s government ultimately does want to survive the vote today, if it can.

The Independent from Surrey North

Whatever happens, and whatever decision he finally does make, hats off to Chuck Cadman. He has shown more dignity, good sense, and due regard for the sovereign people who elected him than most Canadian federal politicians over the past several weeks. It sometimes seems that Canada survives, or even grows and prospers, partly because the accidents of its history are often enough so accidentally benign and charged with strange luck. If you had to hand-pick just one MP to hold the ultimate balance of power in the Parliament of Canada today, you probably couldn’t do too much better than Chuck Cadman.

MAY 18

The Queen has now arrived safely in Regina, to help Alberta and Saskatchewan celebrate their 100th birthdays. But her arrival has been overshadowed by former Conservative MP Belinda Stronach’s altogether surprising decision to join the Liberal cabinet in Ottawa.

In Tuesday’s British Columbia provincial election Gordon Campbell’s Liberals have, as expected, been returned to office. But their New Democrat opponents, led by Carole James, have also done better than almost anyone anticipated. (And the proportional representation referendum probably won’t quite pass, but has done surprisingly well.)

Meanwhile back in Ottawa, the biggest news brewing at the moment just might be that Belinda Stronach’s switch to the Liberals on Tuesday is having some wider momentum, for the crucial confidence vote on the Martin minority government’s budget legislation, this Thursday, May 19.

In a nutshell Ms. Stronach’s switch means that all the Liberals and New Democrats (and Carolyn Parrish) need to squeak by in Thursday’s vote is the support of either of the two remaining independents – David Kilgour or Chuck Cadman. And there now appear to be recurrent rumours in Ottawa that at least Mr. Cadman will probably be voting to sustain the government. If these rumours can be believed (and such things can never be at all certain, no doubt) the government will actually survive, on Thursday at any rate.

Early results on the BC Vote

In round numbers preliminary results give 46% of the BC popular vote to the Liberals, with 41% for the New Democrats, only 9% for the Green Party, and 4% for others. Given the current old-fashioned “first past the post” electoral system, this has translated into 46 seats in the Legislative Assembly for the Liberals, 33 seats for the New Democrats, and none for anyone else.

The accompanying referendum on changing the provincial electoral system to a “Single Transferable Vote” – which would (in future) result in assignments of seats more directly proportional to the province-wide popular vote – is currently running at about 57%, just a little shy of the 60% required for such a change to take effect.

Can the Liberals and New democrats really win on Thursday?

Assorted television reports are now the main sources for Ottawa rumours about the pro-government voting intentions of Chuck Cadman on Thursday.

What is still more confidently known is that the Conservatives themselves now intend to vote for the first government budget bill to be presented on Thursday – which broadly covers the budget before the deal between the Liberals and New Democrats that set the current scene in place. But both the Conservatives and their Bloc Quebecois allies will try to bring the government down by voting against a second budget bill to be presented on Thursday – which broadly covers the details of the deal between the Liberals and the New Democrats.

The prudent assessment almost certainly remains that no one can confidently say just what will happen, and the vote on the second budget bill on Thursday is still going to be very close. But what seems clear enough is that the Conservatives (and the Bloc Quebecois?) are now considerably less confident than they were last week.

If the Liberals do finally survive on Thursday, someone will have to start figuring out just what has been going on over the past several weeks in Ottawa. But for the moment such ancient advice as it’s not over until it’s over, or the fat lady sings, no doubt remains the deepest truth.

MAY 16-17

Now that Canadians have lost this year’s gold medal in world hockey, they have settled down to a busy week of more serious Canadiana. And what with the Queen arriving today, even the politicians in Ottawa have decided that it’s time to start behaving  better. (Well, a bit at least.)

Tuesday’s still more serious event was the provincial election in British Columbia. (And as of this moment, early Wednesday morning back east, the results are still coming in.)

Yesterday’s still more serious and quite surprising event was that Conservative MP Belinda Stronach, from the Greater Toronto Area, crossed the floor to join Paul Martin’s Liberal cabinet in Ottawa.

At last on Thursday all Canadians will discover just what Chuck Cadman and David Kilgour think about the survival of Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government. It may not be enough to take your breath away. But, say what you like, it is democracy at work.

The Queen’s visit

Of course no one planned for the Queen to be in Canada during the same week as the government of Canada might very well be defeated in the Canadian Parliament. But it does seem that somebody up there somewhere is trying to make Canadian history interesting.

The Queen will arrive in Regina, capital of Saskatchewan, on Tuesday (a nice touch in its own right, considering that “Regina” itself means “Queen” in Latin). And, as planned at least, she will be around for eight days, to help celebrate the 100th birthdays of the modern Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

There is apparently still some concern in various official circles about whether the Queen should finally make this trip. Or even if after she  does arrive on Tuesday, just what might or should she do if the Martin government is defeated in Ottawa on Thursday, and the country suddenly plunges into another federal election campaign?

Probably the best thing is for the Queen to come and attend all the local functions in Alberta and Saskatchewan for which plans have been so carefully laid – and just carry on regardless, whatever else happens. There may not be many more events of this sort. Make hay while the sun shines, etc. According to a poll taken just last month 55% of Canadians agree with the statement “when Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends, Canada should end its formal ties to the British Monarchy.” And this is up seven percentage points from the 48% who agreed with that statement in 2002.

The BC election

In theory, the BC provincial election on Tuesday ought to be a bit interesting. It will, e.g, mark the first fixed-date election in Canada. And this inaugurates a North Americanizing reform of the country’s traditional British (or “Westminster,” as some prefer nowadays) political practices, that will also be followed in the most populous province of Ontario in 2007.

The BC election will be pioneering as well with a referendum on changing the provincial electoral system to a form of “proportional representation” known as the Single Transferable Vote (or STV). Here the latest opinion polls have suggested that voters have not been well “educated” on just what is involved. This is hardly surprising, considering how complicated the subject can quickly become. BC voters will nonetheless get a chance to pronounce on, as it were, a non-North-Americanizing political reform that has been much touted in various parts of Canada over the past number of years.

Even the main party political contest of the day in BC ought to be a bit interesting. The BC provincial election pits the Liberals and the New Democrats – who are temporary allies in federal politics right now – against each other. Some would say that the current BC Liberals are not a real liberal party. But they are said to be getting cosier with their federal Liberal brothers and sisters. And others might say that they do bear some ideological resemblance to Jean Charest’s current provincial Liberal party, and government, in Quebec.

What seems to have finally made the BC provincial election boring in practice is the virtual certainty that Gordon Campbell’s Liberals are going to win. The voters may feel that Carole James of the New Democrats has outperformed Premier Campbell in the election campaign, and will almost certainly give her more seats than the mere two her party has now. And even the provincial Green Party campaign has had more weight and heft than in the past. But the latest polls continue to suggest that the Campbell Liberals will be returned in the end. Whatever else, the Liberal “brand” is hardly dead across the country.

The vote in the federal Parliament on Thursday, May 19

The prospect of the Queen’s actual arrival in Canada this week just might have been a factor in smartening the country’s federal politicians up somewhat over the weekend. But it still seems to have been the New Democrats’ proposal to “pair” potentially sick opposing MPs that has finally drained the most toxic partisan political poison out of the pool in Ottawa.

Apparently neither Ed Broadbent nor Alexa McDonough, the two New Democrats who first raised the prospect of pairing with sick Conservative MPs, to neutralize this factor in the increasingly rancorous debate over the timing of a proper confidence vote, will be involved in the end. The pair that does the trick will be between Liberal Natural Resources Minister John Efford, who is undergoing treatment for diabetes, and Conservative MP Darrel Stinson, who has cancer surgery scheduled this week. (And for the background details to all this “pairing”see this past week’s counterweights report.)

According to the Canadian Press Tory House Leader Jay Hill has “said the Conservatives would abandon their delaying tactics and let House business proceed normally until the budget vote – as long as the Liberals keep a promise to bring in a motion officially guaranteeing the vote will be held Thursday.” Mr. Hill has even “signalled … that the Tories would likely back off if they can’t topple Martin this week. If circumstances don’t change I suspect we (wouldn’t) see any further action prior to the summer recess,’ he told reporters.”

Neither Jay Hill nor even Jack Layton (to say nothing of Gilles Duceppe) has altogether foresworn any form of future mid or even shorter term action against a Liberal minority government that wins the confidence vote on the federal budget this Thursday. Conservative Belinda Stronach’s decision to join the Martin cabinet no doubt improves the prospects that this will actually happen somewhat. But as the prime minister himself noted in introducing his new minister of human resources to the TV cameras, her vote alone does not change the essential numbers.

There has also been some talk about pressure on Newfoundland Conservative MPs (all two of them) to vote for the budget on Thursday, to lock in the Martin government’s Atlantic Accord on provincial oil revenues. At the same time, over this past weekend New Democrat leader Jack Layton observed: “What we’ve said is we want to get this budget through, to show some results to Canadians. Then let’s see how people feel. I believe you may find that people don’t necessarily want an election, but they see the House in such chaos that they feel that maybe we just simply have to have one.”

It is hard to resist the thought that if this is what Jack Layton is saying at this point, what must Chuck Cadman be thinking (or David Kilgour), even now that Ms. Stronach has crossed the floor? Yet whatever happens in the vote on Thursday, it at least seems that the Queen will not have to suffer through the indignity of hearing her alleged Canadian federal government and loyal opposition exchanging appalling insults on television, while she is travelling through the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to help celebrate their 100th birthdays.

Meanwhile, back at the Governor General’s Residence, in Rideau Hall

Some branches of the press across the sea in the United Kingdom apparently remain concerned about the Queen’s visit this week to “a country in political crisis.” If Paul Martin’s Liberal government “is still standing” by the time she arrives on Tuesday, Caroline Davies at prognosticated in an article published on Monday, “the prediction is he will lose the May 19 vote.” And “thus the man who greets the Queen as her prime minister at the bottom of the runway steps at Regina may no longer be her prime minister two days later.”

In this case, Ms. Davies goes on, the Queen “may well be asked to turn around and come right back.” And if her just defeated prime minister “advises her to stay – to spare disappointment for Saskatchewan and Alberta which … have planned elaborate festivities – well, that causes a whole set of new problems … With no government, what of the grand luncheon to be hosted by the Government of Canada’ in Regina on May 20? Or the PM’s formal speech, and his presence at her official departure ceremony in Calgary?”

Even here, however, it would seem that the ultimate answers to such questions ought to be simple enough. Just this past December 29, 2004 Paul Martin’s Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa announced certain changes in Canadian diplomatic credentials – or more exactly, “changes to the form of Letters of Credence and Letters of Recall, in order to ensure that Canada’s diplomatic practices reflect the role and function of the Governor General” of Canada.

In the past such documents were issued in the name of the Queen. As of January 1, 2005 they have been issued in the name of the “the Governor General directly … to more accurately reflect the Governor General’s discharge of all of the functions of the Head of State in respect of Canada’s international relations, and to reflect Canada’s status as a fully independent nation.”

For all practical purposes, that is to say, it is the Governor General – a thoroughly Canadianized institution for more than half a century – who is Canada’s real and effective head of state nowadays. If the prime minister is defeated in Parliament, even while the Queen is in Canada, it is the Governor General he will go to and advise to call a fresh election, not the Queen.

If the prime minister’s government is defeated while the Queen is in the country, the Government of Canada will continue to be represented by the Governor General of Canada, as Commander in Chief and Head of State. (And, for better or worse, the present Governor General is very good indeed at such things as giving speeches and hosting grand luncheons.)

As one of several articles on the Governor General in this past weekend’s Toronto Star alluded to, the more we lean on this office in such ways, the clearer it becomes that the office itself is in need of some reform – a subject in which the Parliament of Canada has taken increasing interest over the past few years. When either Prime Minister Paul Martin or Prime Minister Stephen Harper soon enough appoints the next Governor General of Canada, Ottawa writer Charlotte Gray has suggested, “there will likely be a debate on both the office as well as the process of appointment.”

Or, if we actually are in some at least mild form of political crisis in Canada, we might as well try to turn it to some good. There are no doubt a great many things that do need improving – democratizing, reforming, making less corrupt and more realistically accountable to the sovereign people of Canada today – in Ottawa and many other parts of the country.

Who knows? The next several months, or even the next number of years, might just present some fresh opportunities to do just that? And then all the theatrics of the past several weeks, and maybe some considerable time ahead as well, would be somehow worthwhile. Something of this sort could just be what Canadians are starting to stare down the road at this week. And it is intriguing too that Belinda Stronach’s new responsibilities in Paul Martin’s Liberal cabinet, however much longer it may last, are said to include “democratic renewal” and reforms called for by the results of the Gomery Commission.

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