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