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Vancouver Sun, Saturday, January 26, 2008

Both Tories and Liberals will have to step lightly

by Barbara Yaffe

Conservatives and Liberals will surely be holding their noses as they coordinate dance steps during a parliamentary sitting that resumes Monday.

Neither team is keen to trigger an election when the country is girding for an economic downturn. So speculation about a spring vote -- so rife at the end of 2007 -- has now ebbed.

With New Democrats and the Bloc sounding less fearful about an election, Conservatives are faced with a challenge. With a minority government, the Harperites likely will have to rely on the Liberals to support measures that require votes in the Commons.

Which in turn presents a dilemma for Liberals and in particular Stephane Dion, whom Conservatives have been trying to portray as an indecisive wimp.

Last fall Dion found himself propping up the Harper government on several Commons votes and was castigated for it. Voting anew for the government side will only reinforce his perceived weakness as a leader.

"It puts the Liberals on the horns of a dilemma," acknowledges Halton MP Garth Turner.

The one-time Conservative, now Liberal, cites two issues on which Grits will have to defer to Conservatives if a spring vote is to be avoided.

The first relates to a pending vote on the future of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.

Liberals are on record as wanting an end to the combat mission by February of 2009, with a reassignment to development-oriented work in another part of the war-ravaged country.

With the Manley report now in hand, it's probable the government will seek a promised Commons vote to extend the mission with the recommended proviso that NATO provide 1,000 troops to assist Canadian soldiers.

If Liberals are to avoid a date with the polls, they'll have to support that option.

A Commons vote logically would come in April, after a NATO summit in Romania where the government would learn if the additional troops will be forthcoming.

The second issue that will require Liberal acquiescence is a Conservative budget.

While Liberals have been musing about voting against the Harper government's fiscal blueprint expected in late February, given the dismal economic outlook Dion may opt to swallow hard and instruct his caucus to vote with the government.

The party will, however, attempt to dominate the agenda with its own proposals to stimulate the economy, though it is keeping under wraps -- until an election campaign -- a more comprehensive fiscal reform package.

Specific policy matters aside, it's hard to see why Liberals, or Conservatives for that matter, would want an election in the near term. Neither has been registering sufficient polling support to suggest a majority government would be in the offing.

Nor has any compelling issue emerged that could be used to one or the other side's advantage in a campaign.

Given a nervous stock market and an economic downturn in the U.S., the economy is a good bet to overtake the environment as a major preoccupation for Parliament and Canadians at least in the early part of the year.

Other controversies that will mark the sitting include a Commons committee's continuing probe of former PM Brian Mulroney's business dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber and the recent firing of Linda Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

On Thursday, Liberals called for an non-partisan tribunal to review Keen's firing.

Liberals will continue to press for a similar independent inquiry aimed at more elaborately scrutinizing the Mulroney affair.

Politicians will also be preoccupied this spring by four byelections set for March 17.

The Liberals are expecting fairly certain wins by Joyce Murray in Vancouver-Quadra, Bob Rae in Toronto Centre and Martha Hall Findlay in Willowdale.

Tougher to predict is a byelection in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River.

There, Progressive Conservative-turned Liberal David Orchard, seen as a gadfly by some in his new party, has created a stir by confronting appointed Liberal candidate Joan Beatty.

A resulting fuss is bound to be an embarrassment for the party and could cost it a win in the northern Saskatchewan riding.

Liberals had been eager about snaring all four ridings to get some all-important momentum. As ever, politics is a fluid game.

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