This week, the hubris of the federal Liberal and Conservative parties brought Canada to the brink of an election, just a year after the last one — and during the second wave of a pandemic which threatens to be as bad as, or worse than, the first wave.
The 32 Bloc Québécois MPs played along with this game of political brinksmanship. They happily lined up with the Conservatives. It fell to the fourth-place party, the NDP, to play the role of adult in the room and stop the collective madness of the other three.
What started the crisis was a motion Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole presented on Tuesday morning calling on the House of Commons to set up a special anti-corruption committee. That committee’s mandate would be to conduct a broadly defined investigation into the WE charity affair and other issues related to government spending on COVID-19 programs.
O’Toole’s motion is 1,200 words long and goes into great detail.
It names particular prime ministerial staffers, their spouses, and a former Liberal MP, and would have sweeping powers to commandeer resources normally devoted to other committees. It could also compel testimony from cabinet ministers, and require that the government submit reams of documents within days (or even hours) of the committee being formed.
The motion is quite specific on that latter point.
Among the documents it would require are “all memoranda, e-mails, notes or other records from the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council Office, since June 25, 2020, concerning options, plans and preparations for the prorogation of Parliament, including polling and public opinion research,” as well as “all records pertaining to speaking appearances arranged, since October 14, 2008, for the current prime minister, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Margaret Trudeau and Alexandre Trudeau, including an indication of the fee provided [and] any expenses that were reimbursed.”
The Liberals balked, of course. They proposed their own committee, which would ask for no documents, would be chaired by a Liberal, and have a majority of Liberal members. That suggestion was too obviously disingenuous and went nowhere.
But even New Democrats thought the Conservative proposal was, in NDP House leader Peter Julian’s words, “over the top.”
And, so, New Democrats tried to broker a compromise. Their ethics critic, northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, proposed a committee chaired by an opposition MP and on which government members would not have a majority. Its powers would be less sweeping than those proposed in O’Toole’s motion.
Angus’ committee could require documents, for instance, but not on an unrealistic timetable. And its terms of reference would not assume a built-in bias against the Liberal government.
Trudeau rubbed his hands in glee at the prospect of going to the polls
It was a futile effort.
Prime Minister Trudeau had no interest in any sort of compromise. By Tuesday morning it was clear that it was to be his way or the highway. Trudeau threatened that if a majority of members of Parliament were to pass the O’Toole motion, he would consider it a vote of non-confidence and immediately call an election.
That threat was, on the face of it, an outrageous exercise in political poker — except that the prime minister does not seem to have been bluffing.
It is hard not to conclude that Trudeau actually relished the idea of an election campaign at this time, of all times. It appears the prime minister believed he would have a good chance of winning a majority. Recent polls show the Liberals holding a respectable, if not overwhelming, lead over the Conservatives and their new leader.
The NDP decided it would not act as an enabler to Trudeau’s election-lust. If the Liberal leader wants to call an election, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said, he has the power to do it anytime. He does not need the Opposition’s help, Singh said, adding that New Democrats would not allow the prime minister to use the opposition parties as scapegoats for his desire to trigger a premature vote.
On one point NDPers and Conservatives concurred: a motion to set up a committee cannot be legitimately considered a confidence matter. According to parliamentary precedence and tradition, there are only two ways for the combined forces of the opposition to vote non-confidence in a government. They can vote down a money bill, such as a budget, or they can pass an overt and clearly worded motion of non-confidence in a government.
The Joe Clark minority Progressive Conservative government fell on the former type of vote in 1979. The opposition voted down its budget. Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government fell on the latter sort, in 2011. The opposition parties voted in favour of a non-confidence motion proposed by the Liberals.
No government has ever fallen because a majority of members voted in favour of the House striking a new committee.
Are NDPers lapdogs or responsible MPs who care about their constituents?
In the end, when the vote came on Wednesday afternoon both New Democratic and Green members voted with the government and against O’Toole’s motion, and we were spared a pandemic election.
One Bloc MP said the NDP acted like lapdogs of the government. And a number of journalists aggressively asked Jagmeet Singh to say what, if anything, it would take for the NDP to vote against the Liberals. Singh insisted that the Trudeau government has not gotten his party’s support willy-nilly; it has had to earn it by frequently heeding NDP policy suggestions.
Most recently the NDP succeeded in pushing the Liberals to boost the amount recipients receive under the new benefit that replaces the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. That measure passed Parliament unanimously.
One pollster did a one-night-wonder survey and claimed 55 per cent of Canadians wanted an election over this issue. Funny thing, this writer has not met a single one of those Canadians. If there are readers who think what Canada needs now more than anything is a federal election, I am sure we will hear from them.
As for the NDP, it has been playing the cards it has. Its 24 MPs have focused on the needs of their constituents, not political game playing. When an election ultimately comes, the voters might not thank them for it, but it is a risk they have to take.
The Conservatives invited New Democrats to join them in pushing the government further than it was willing to go. They even used flattery, praising the hard work of the NDP’s ethics critic.
Charlie Angus’ response was revealing:
“I always get really nervous when the Conservatives tell me how much they like me. I sort of feel like it is being invited to go down and have a picnic by the riverbank with the crocodiles, who are saying, ‘Come on down and sit with us. We have always thought you were a really decent guy.’ I have been there and done that, and I wear the scars.”
Having said all that, it does not mean there are not legitimate issues Parliament has a right to investigate — and they go beyond the WE charity. There is, for instance, the matter of a lucrative contract to provide ventilators the Liberals signed with a newly formed shell company that turned around and subcontracted to a former Liberal MP.
There are existing committees to deal with those issues — the finance, health and ethics committees, for instance — even if Liberal members have, of late, been obstructing their efforts.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner has been urging the health committee, on which she sits, to request a mountain of documents related to the pandemic response, including the earliest preparatory plans for the pandemic and the records of the COVID-19 vaccine task force.
The Liberals on that committee have blocked her efforts, so the Conservative are now presenting that voluminous request to the entire parliament in the form of a second motion.
The House is due to vote on that motion on Monday October 26. The Liberals have not yet said whether or not they will consider that one to be a matter of confidence too.
The NDP’s Charlie Angus has given his own notice. He will ask the government to turn over some key documents to the ethics committee, on which he sits. We’ll see how that goes. Since it prorogued Parliament in August the government has been acting suspiciously as though it has something to hide.
Be that as it may, an election would not be a good idea, at this time.
That does not mean, however, that the Trudeau government should not provide the sort of openness and transparency it solemnly promised Canadians at election time, both in 2015 and in 2019.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.
Image: Video screenshot