On Dec. 20 the Tories executed a Christmas ambush with stealthy tactics more characteristic of a schoolboys’ secret meeting than a parliamentary debate. It began at 12:30 p.m. on the penultimate day before adjournment, when dozens of Conservative MPs crowded into Room 229-N, a little-used committee room a few doors away from the Commons chamber. Chuck Cook, the party whip, had told each one to take a circuitous route, arrive alone and say nothing—even to close aides. By 1 p.m. almost 40 highspirited Tories had gathered in the room with Cook in charge. At 1:10 p.m., he learned that the House was about to vote on a routine tax measure and he told his members that they had less than a minute to be in their seats in the Commons. They obligingly charged the chamber. “It was like a candy call at a boys’ camp,” Cook said, recalling how the Tories burst through the curtains at the back of the Commons, scrambled into their seats and defeated the unsuspecting government 67 to 38.
When the initial drama died down, it was clear that the Tory bid to unseat
the government was little more than a December frolic. Still, Opposition Leader Brian Mulroney gravely maintained that: “This government has been defeated on a tax bill and therefore lost the confidence of the House. All precedent requires that in such circumstances the government must submit its
Mulroney was not present but he helped to devise the Tories' ambush that embarrassed the Liberals
resignation.” But even as he spoke, constitutional scholars were dismissing his claim, and the Liberals were showing sheepish but confident smiles. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, for one, did not conceal his enjoyment of the unexpected diversion. Then, 26 hours after the vote, Conservative House Leader Erik Nielsen grudgingly announced that his party was abandoning its harassment campaign. “We will permit the business of the House to proceed,
but we commit ourselves to hold the government responsible for its actions,” he declared.
At the same time, the government was preparing a surprise of its own for the Tories. Even as the Opposition tied up the Commons with procedural wrangles, top Liberal strategists were completing a secret list of patronage appointments, preparing to name party veterans to the Governor Generalship, the chairman’s job at Air Canada and as many as 21 Senate vacancies.
Last week’s Christmas episode was reminiscent of one of the biggest surprises in recent political history. The Tory melodrama came within a week of the anniversary of the unexpected defeat of former prime minister Joe Clark’s Conservative government by the Liberals four years ago. That caper, too, began as little more than a madcap Opposition scheme, hatched in a burst of seasonal high spirits. But there were important differences. For one, the Clark government lost a clear vote of confidence in its budget. Last week’s vote, by contrast, concerned only one clause of a massive income tax bill. As well, it came when the House was sitting as an all-member parliamentary
committee, not as the Commons itself. Finally—unlike 1979 when the Clark government knew that its life was at stake on the rainy night of Dec. 13—the recent vote was a lunchtime surprise. “The Constitution is not so silly that you can be defeated by an accidental vote,” declared John Stewart, a former Liberal MP and a recognized authority on parliamentary procedure.
A closer parallel to last week’s incident than the Clark defeat occurred in 1968, in the twilight of Lester Pearson’s regime. Then, on a February night the House was scheduled to vote on a bill to impose a five-per-cent surtax on incomes. Pearson was vacationing in Jamaica at the time of the vote, and several front-bench Liberals, eager to succeed him as leader, were out on the hustings. Still, even with their depleted ranks, the overconfident Liberals thought they could breeze through the vote. As a result, the count shocked everyone—because 84 MPs voted against the bill, while 82 supported it. “I was not only flabbergasted, I was furious,” Pearson later wrote in his memoirs. He flew back to Canada, won a crucial 24hour adjournment of the Commons from then Tory leader Robert Stanfield, and the government survived the embarrassment by submitting a carefully worded resolution of confidence to the House, asking for the right to remain in power. The motion passed easily, but the Tories had shaken the Liberals with their unexpected lesson in parliamentary tactics.
Clearly, last week’s vote revealed a sudden departure from the “civility and cordiality” that Mulroney has publicly advocated and largely practised since his parliamentary debut in September. Indeed, four days before the flare-up erupted, Mulroney told Maclean ’s: “The Canadian people are fed up with posturing and stridency. They are looking for a more generous and openminded approach.” He said then that he wanted to improve the standard of conduct in the House by setting an example of restraint and good manners for his own members. And, when the controversial vote took place, the Opposition leader was in his fourth-floor office. Still, there was little doubt that he helped to engineer the sneak attack. When an aide brought him word of the vote, Mulroney proclaimed: “We have succeeded. The government is defeated.” For his part, Cook, the captain of the Tory forces, later confided that Mulroney had been fully briefed from the start. “He knew what was happening, but if he had turned up in the House, it would have tipped off the government.” In fact, the same kind of posturing will likely continue until the Liberals and Tories get a real chance to clear the air—with a federal election.
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