Politics

THE TWILIGHTZONE

So you thought things couldn't get stranger in Ottawa? Think again, says PAUL WELLS.

May 23 2005
Politics

THE TWILIGHTZONE

So you thought things couldn't get stranger in Ottawa? Think again, says PAUL WELLS.

May 23 2005

THE TWILIGHTZONE

Politics

WE’LL GET TO IT ALL—the votes, the stupid pet tricks, the tumour one-upmanship, the Great Abbreviated Sled-Dog Debate of ’05—but if you are to understand what it was like to be on Parliament Hill during the week the Hill ejected itself from the comprehensible universe and popped into some alternative Bizarro Dimension, it is probably best if we simply start at the beginning.

MONDAY, MAY 9, NOON

The Centre Block of Parliament was abuzz. MPs from every party were in town and under strict orders to stay within easy striking distance of their seats in the Commons. A confidence vote could take Paul Martin’s shaken and exhausted government down at any minute. Precisely how that confrontation might happen, however, was a matter of speculation. Just outside the Commons chamber, I ran into Gary Lunn, the diminutive and meticulously hair-gelled Conservative MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C. “Well,” he said, “the question is: does the government really want to face a vote on the budget on Thursday?”

The Liberals had been using procedural tricks to keep the opposition parties from putting a motion of confidence to the House. But a vote on a money bill is automatically a confidence vote, and Bill C-48, implementing the extra-spending deal between Jack Layton and Martin, was certainly a money bill. The Conservatives thought they might be able to put a confidence motion to the House on May 19. But now, Lunn said, the Liberals might prefer to rush the Layton-Martin deal to a vote within days. Better to fall on the government’s new agenda, if fall they must, than to fall on a motion about Liberal ethical failures. Or so the theory went.

“The rumour last week,” Lunn said, “was that a lot of government members were saying they were going to ‘walk off the cliff’ on Thursday.”

That’s not quite the way it worked out. But nobody can blame Gary Lunn for guessing wrong. It would be a hard week to call.

2:20 P.M.

Through the lunch hour, only a dozen or so MPs were in the Commons, most ignoring whoever was speaking as they caught up on correspondence or read the papers. But by the time Question Period came, the House was packed. Martin and the other party leaders weren’t yet back from the VE-Day celebration in the Netherlands, but almost everyone else was in place and baying like wolves.

Jason Kenney (Conservative, Calgary Southeast) stood to chronicle the latest revelations from the Gomery inquiry. “Parliamentary secretaries, MPs and senior staff who received dirty money,” Kenney said. Why wouldn’t Martin fire the lot? “It is interesting to note,” Public Works Minister Scott Brison replied, that the morning’s Ottawa Citizen referred to Kenney as the “Prince of Meanness.” Kenney grinned, stood up, and gave a little bow.

Question Period proceeded apace. Monte Solberg (Conservative, Medicine Hat) called on Ralph Goodale to resign. Goodale responded by calling on Solberg to resign.

Genuine surprises rarely break through the canned outrage of Question Period. Monday’s big surprise came a little later, in a House that was once again nearly empty. John Williams (Conservative, EdmontonSt. Albert) moved that the House concur in a six-month-old report from the Public Accounts Committee. Then his colleague Jay Hill (Prince George-Peace River) added a particularly dangerous amendment: that the report be sent back to the committee

Genuine surprises rarely break through the canned outrage in the House

with instructions that it amend the report “so as to recommend that the government resign.”

If this was too obscure for the Liberals, Hill spelled it out. “If the majority of members vote for such a motion, then obviously the majority would like this government to resign.” Why the odd wording on a dusty old motion? “Because this is the only vehicle available to the opposition to get an expression of confidence on the floor of the House of Commons.”

So you thought things couldn't get stranger in Ottawa? Think again, says PAUL WELLS.

But a government caucus, sluggish from more than a decade in power, is an ungainly vehicle to turn. Almost 2Vz hours passed before the lonely Liberals stranded in the House realized that Hill’s amendment meant serious trouble for the government.

5:33 P.M.

Shawn Murphy, the Liberal from Charlottetown, rose. “As a lot of people have figured out, this is a rather strange motion,” he said. “I find it almost weird.” The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois were ganging up against the government. Murphy didn’t like it one bit. “It is an unholy marriage. It is an unholy marriage and one that I find offensive to

Canadian values.” Murphy blamed it all on Stephen Harper, “who has this unhealthy and unnatural thirst for power. This is just one of the things we are seeing as a result. We are probably going to see more tomorrow.”

TUESDAY, MAY 10,10:05 A.M.

The Great Abbreviated Sled-Dog Debate of ’05 was over almost as soon as it began. Most of the debate was about whether the debate should be happening. History will little note, nor long remember, any of it. Which is too bad, because it was pretty funny.

Peter Milliken, the Speaker, noted that two MPs wanted to move motions. Jay Hill’s proposed that the topic for debate and a vote on May 19 be chosen by the Opposition, not the government—yet another attempt to force a confidence vote. But Nancy KaretakLindell’s motion was higher on the order paper, so she won. Karetak-Lindell (Liberal, Nunavut) is a tiny, soft-spoken Inuit MP from whom Parliament does not often hear. Suddenly, she wanted the House to debate yet another committee report. This one would set up a judicial inquiry into the slaughter of Inuit sled dogs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Up gets Dick Harris (Conservative, CaribooPrince George). “I would ask the member whether her heart is really into debating this motion,” he said. Wasn’t this just another tactic to block a confidence vote? Perish the thought. “I do not get up to do a lot of trivial debate,” Karetak-Lindell protested. “I think my record speaks for itself.”

Jay Hill spoke next. “If she’s serious about this issue, then I am sure the Liberals will not be planning to adjourn the debate on this.” In other words: if the sled-dog debate was just a ploy to block Hill’s own confidence vote, it would last only a few minutes. If it was a serious debate about mid-20th-century husky abuse, it should last a full three hours.

Almost immediately Karen Redman, the Liberals’ government whip, stood to call the question. The Great Abbreviated SledDog Debate was not quite 10 minutes old. Conservatives tried to protest. Their latest attempt to call the Liberals to account for scandal had been sidetracked by dead sled dogs. The Liberals protested back. “These are not motions that were put in frivolously,” Paul Szabo (Liberal, Mississauga South) said. And with that he moved that the House end its debate on Karetak-Lindell’s motion. After a quick vote of all members, it was over. The Great Abbreviated Sled-Dog Debate had lasted about an hour. It could not possibly have had less to do with sled dogs.

NOON

“People are playing for keeps,” Jerry Yanover told me as we sat in an alcove off the hallway between the Commons and the Senate. “Everybody obviously looks at everything that’s happening a little more carefully.” Yanover is to Liberalism what Yoda is to the Jedi Council: the most feared practitioner of an ancient craft. As senior legislative counsel to the Liberals’ House Leader, Tony Valeri, Yanover knows more about how parliamentary procedure works than almost anyone. He’s been working for Liberal House leaders since Donald Macdonald held the job in 1968.

When I asked Yanover what’s most striking about the current crisis, he surprised me by responding in nostalgic terms. Keeping the Trudeau minority government alive between 1972 and 1974 was similarly tricky, he said, but not really comparable. “The tone of Parliament was very different in those days. It was much more genteel.”

Why? “First of all, there was debate in the House of Commons in those days—which, since the advent of TV coverage, has simply gone away.” It’s an old argument, but suddenly it makes no sense. Why are people likelier to act like asses when more people can see them via TV? Because TV hides as much as it reveals, Yanover said. Parliamentary rules require that the camera focus on whichever MP has the floor. “If you’re watching on TV, you can’t see the people who are making the noise.”

The explanation has the ring of truth, but it’s insufficient. Sometimes people can do perfectly appalling things even when the cameras are pointed right at them. And sometimes something happens that reminds everyone to show a little restraint—or should.

3:05 P.M.

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of personal privilege.” Judy Sgro hasn’t been heard from much since she resigned on Jan. 14, in disgrace and under sustained opposition fire, from her position as immigration minister. Now, Sgro was announcing that Harjit Singh, the pizza parlour man who claimed he had traded campaign favours for Sgro’s help in keeping him from getting kicked out of the country, had retracted the allegation and apologized. MPs from every party applauded

this news of a colleague’s exoneration.

But not every MP. Diane Ablonczy, the Conservative from Calgary-Nose Hill who led the attack against Sgro last autumn, sat at her desk opposite the deposed minister, staring impassively, shaking her head. As MPs lined up to hug Sgro, Ablonczy quietly left the Commons.

Mudslinging is what people do in Parliament these days. It can be jarring to be asked to abandon the habit. Earlier, Reg Alcock, the Treasury Board president, tried to stop Conservative MPs from dragging allegations from the Gomery inquiry into the House. Two subjects of the latest “have absolutely and completely denied it and they are taking action to defend themselves,” Alcock said. “We should not jump to the execution before we have had the trial.” But it’s a funny thing. Not too long ago, denial and legal action were insufficient to protect people from premature execution at the hands of this government. Marc Leifançois and Jean Pelletier have also denied wrongdoing and are also taking action to defend themselves. But this government fired the

VIA Rail executives last year anyway. The Martin Liberals’ new fondness for due process is something of a deathbed conversion.

6:10 P.M.

As he stood to vote against the Conservatives’ impromptu, convoluted confidence motion, Andrew Telegdi (Liberal, Kitchener-Waterloo) perched a copy of On The Take, Stevie Cameron’s book about corruption during the Mulroney era, on the corner of his desk for all to see. The little act of bravado didn’t help much: the Liberals and NDP were

defeated by the Conservatives and the Bloc, 153 to 150.

Stephen Harper rose to demand the Prime Minister put an immediate confidence motion before the House, if he didn’t believe this had been one. Martin smiled and stared blankly into the middle distance while around him Liberal MPs shouted abuse at the Conservative leader.

Leaving the House, I walked down Parliament Hill with a senior Conservative strategist. I asked the obvious question: What now? The Tory shrugged. “More stupid pet tricks.”

WEDNESDAY, MAY 11,12:20 P.M.

“Let me say one other thing,” Harper told reporters outside the room where Conservatives hold their weekly caucus meetings. “I’m tired of the games. We’re not going to play another week so that the Prime Minister can use the Queen as a prop next week. We’re not going to play another week so he can hope the health of some members of Parliament deteriorates.”

The health mention referred, of course, to Dave Chatters and Darrel Stinson, Conservatives who had interrupted cancer therapy to attend Tuesday’s vote but might not be able to attend another. Later, when Harper repeated the accusation at Question Period, Martin shook his head and mouthed the word “disgusting.”

Between Wednesday and Friday, the Conservatives and Bloc would team up four more times to defeat the Liberals and NDP on assorted motions, twice forcing the House to adjourn. None of the motions was a confidence vote. All demonstrated the Liberals’ inability to maintain confidence.

On Friday afternoon, Harper accepted an offer from Ed Broadbent (NDP, Ottawa Centre) to “pair”—Broadbent would skip the confidence vote this Thursday so Stinson’s absence due to surgery won’t hurt the Conservatives’ chances. It marked an end to an astonishing display of tumour one-upmanship that had Liberal and Conservative strategists trading accusations about which side cared less for cancer-stricken parliamentarians.

Broadbent’s humane gesture stood out so sharply in this degraded Parliament because it seemed out of place, like a clean spot on a grimy carpet. It is grimly fitting that Broadbent has announced he won’t run for re-election: there is less and less room in Canadian politics for anyone like him. Hfl