Thursday, October 07, 2004
A game of poker in Ottawa
A vote tonight in the House of Commons, expected to be held at 6:30pm (EDT), is turning out to be the first major showdown between the Liberals and the opposition parties in this new Parliament. And it's only been in session for a few days now.
The Liberals unveiled their Throne Speech on Tuesday. Since then, both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois have voiced their unhappiness with its stated agenda and have demanded changes to it.
The first changes, included in an amendment proposed by the Bloc, is what will be voted on this evening. It addresses the Bloc's desire to have provincial jurisdictions more clearly defended by the Liberal government, as well as recognize the so-called 'fiscal imbalance' resulting from Ottawa's failure to use its taxing powers to redistribute surpluses back to the provinces. The Conservatives have indicated their intention of supporting the amendment.
In demonstrating their own show of force, the Liberals have declared that a passing of this amendment amounts to a vote of non-confidence, which would result in a fall of this government. The Conservatives have already voiced their desire to avoid a declaration of non-confidence resulting from the passing of the amendment. Their preference would be to pass the amendment, then hold a subsequent vote on support for the government, which they would vote for. The NDP has sided with the Liberals in this fight.
There is a game of poker being played here. Tory leader Stephen Harper, and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, have been throwing their weight around in this new minority situation on the Hill, threatening to add their voices to a Liberal government which no longer has the power of majority it once had. In return, Prime Minister Martin has thrown down the gauntlet stating, in effect, that, "If this is what you want, this is what you'll get. You keep this up, and you'll be going back to the polls explaining why you needlessly toppled a government which had every right to proceed on an agenda upon which it was elected". Martin also seems to be banking on the prospect of the Tories supporting an amendment from a separatist party to vote down the government. Does Harper want to be known as the guy who made a deal with the traitors in the pursuit of his own political ambitions?
At this moment, it is inconceivable that Harper would want to fall into that trap. He has his own amendments he wants passed which are much easier to sell than the ones now being considered from the Bloc. Yet, either way, the passing of any amendment to the Throne Speech would involve the Conservatives voting with the Bloc. Martin appears to be betting that there is no way Harper would do it. And, if he did, it would amount to political suicide.
From Harper's perspective, he has set himself up in kind of truth or dare scenario. Either he follows up on some of his own rhetoric about having a voice in this new parliament, and passing amendments to that effect, or he risks succumbing to the dare presented by the Prime Minister challenging the sincerity of much of that rhetoric. By talking tough so far, Harper risks losing out on that game bluff by folding after making it seem as though he were moving ahead with full speed. Yet that outcome may be more favourable to Harper than one which sees himself joining forces with the Bloc to vote down a duly elected federal government.
In any game of high stakes, there is the bluffing, there is also the calling of that bluff. The Liberals are daring the opposition to show what cards they have. In return, the opposition is now determining whether it calls the government on it's latest raising of the pot.
On it's side, the Liberals have an election which put them in a minority government. They have also just inked a deal with the provinces which, while not perfect, was touted as a success from many corners. They have every right to govern as they see fit, as long as they take into account that they no longer enjoy a majority status in the House.
This is where the opposition comes in, since it's their argument that the Liberals are not acting as though they are in the minority. They have not consulted with the opposition parties on the contents of the Throne Speech. They have also not included anything in that agenda which acknowledges policies for which there has been widespread support from all parties. In fact, they can argue that the Liberals are daring the opposition to bring down this government. This isn't the way minorities are supposed to work. This isn't the way a government acts if it wants to proceed to get things done.
Perhaps the million dollar question is this: how willing is Stephen Harper to join forces with the separatists to bring down this government? Alternatively, how willing is Paul Martin to have his government fall so soon on the hope that people perceive the Tory-Bloc alliance as an affront to Canadian sensibilities?
It should be noted, all the parties have outs which could see them save face. The opposition could have some of its members come down with flu at the last minute to avoid having the numbers to pass an amendment. The government could use some of its own powers to avoid a final confrontation so soon in this new Parliament.
One would think Paul Martin has the stronger hand. Is he betting that Harper has been bluffing all along as part of an exaggerated show of force? Or will Harper continue along with his already demonstrated penchant for taking risks and turning hopeless circumstances into political victory? It's hard to see how he can do this with the Bloc acting as his wildcard. Perhaps we'll see at 6:30 just what kind of poker players these guys really are.
UPDATE (7:23pm): A last minute deal is reached, avoiding the prospect of the government falling from a vote of non-confidence.
Prime Minister Martin had voiced his concerns about inclusion of references to "The premier and the government of Quebec" within the amendment, fearing it would give a province a veto over a federal budget. Conservative leader Stephen Harper took those concerns to Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, who agreed to have those references removed from the amendment. Jack Layton has agreed as well.
Early indications are that Paul Martin folded. After signaling the unacceptability of the amendment earlier today, even threatening to declare its passing as a vote of non-confidence against his government, he now turns around and agrees to that same amendment with a change in its wording. Same basic amendment. Same basic meaning. Different basic attitude from the Prime Minister.
Harper teamed up with Duceppe in order to force Martin's hand. Layton was hammering away at their actions as well. They basically got what they wanted. Hard to see how this isn't interpreted as a first minor victory for Harper and Duceppe.
UPDATE 2 (11:33pm):Reports in the media thus far have been portraying the last minute deal as a test passed by this young Liberal minority government. Both sides blinked, but Martin managed to get the compromises he wanted to avoid the passing of an unacceptable amendment to the Throne Speech.
There are only two problems with this scenario.
First, it's hard to believe that the wording the government wanted served as a legitimate deal-breaker that would have brought down this Parliament. Essentially, references to the Premier and government of Quebec were taken out of the amendment. As I read them, these were not references that served as a basis for future federal-provincial relations, but were a statement of fact as to where the current Quebec Premier stood on these issues. This is the first time I have heard concern from the Prime Minister over the reference, and waiting for the last minute in order to voice it seems to be a strange way of running government.
Second, it was Martin himself who raised the stakes in the first place. It was he who signalled that the passing of the amendment would amount to a vote of non-confidence against the government. It was he who created a situation where the upcoming vote would have toppled his own government. For some to come out now and claim that he saved himself from his own actions is a bit strange, to say the least.
To be sure, Harper himself is taking a conciliatory tone. He could have come out and argued that he got what he wanted. Instead, he lauded the prevailing of a sense of compromise on all sides.
Yes, the reports are indicating as much. But maybe they could do away with some of the headlines which try to tell us that Martin was able to save the day. If you want to get right down to it, I think he was able to save himself.