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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to deliver the federal budget on March 22. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to deliver the federal budget on March 22. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

How to bring down the Tories: <br/>It's not as easy as you think Add to ...

Pulling the trigger is not as easy as it sounds.

Moving on from the endless and unresolved speculation over "if" the opposition will defeat the government, Parliament Hill is now abuzz over "how."

A prime minister can go to the governor-general at any time. But an opposition in a minority Parliament looking for an election must be united on both the timing and the method in order to bring down a sitting government.

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That's why this hardly ever happens.

Quick: How many times has a government gone down to defeat over a federal budget? The answer - covering 144 years of Canadian parliamentary tradition - is two.

Expand the search to include not just budget defeats, but any election-triggering defeat at the hands of MPs, and the total number rises to just five.

The Liberals are not ruling out the basic premise of a Monday morning Hill Times article by Tim Naumetz, which is that the party may attempt to bring down the government on a motion that has nothing to do with the budget.

House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is set to rule any day, possibly this week, on two questions of privilege. One, from Liberal MP John McKay, asks the Speaker to find International Co-operation minister Bev Oda in contempt of Parliament. The other, from Liberal MP Scott Brison, asks the Speaker to find the government in contempt for refusing to fully disclose the cost of government crime bills.

Conservative House Leader John Baird did table some documents in response to the Brison question, so Mr. Milliken will have to rule on the adequacy of the government response.

If a Speaker rules Parliament's privileges were in fact breached, the mover of the original motion can decide to have it studied by a committee or ask the House to deal with it via a vote. It is through this scenario that the Speaker's ruling could lead to a vote on a no-confidence motion before the March 22 budget is tabled.

Should this be the method, a government defeat this week would still depend on plenty of ifs: If the Speaker rules this week, if the NDP and the Bloc Québécois go along with the motion (a big if given that the leader of the NDP is currently recovering from weekend hip surgery and has repeatedly said he wants to see what's in the budget), and if any vote on the Speaker's ruling is not delayed until after the March break.

Onward to the next if. If Finance Minister Jim Flaherty does in fact stand in the House of Commons on Tues, March 22, to deliver the 2011 budget, there will be a series of related votes.

The government will move a "ways and means" motion to adopt the budget. It must then schedule four days of debate on that motion and can schedule those days whenever it wants. The Official Opposition (in this case the Liberals), has the right to propose an amendment. The third party in the House (in this case the Bloc) can propose a sub-amendment. Therefore the first vote - and historically the most important in this context - is the vote on the sub-amendment, which takes place on the second day of budget debate.

In the two cases in which a government was defeated on the budget, it was on the sub-amendment. The first was written by NDP leader David Lewis, who in May, 1974, added to a Progressive Conservative non-confidence amendment that the budget failed to help pensioners and to remove the "glaring inequities in the taxation system."

The second case occurred on Dec. 13, 1979, when a vote on an NDP sub-amendment to a Liberal amendment defeated the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark.

It stated that: "This House condemns the Government for its budget which will place an unfair and unnecessary burden of higher gasoline prices, higher fuel oil prices, and higher taxes on middle and lower income Canadians."

And just who was the young jihadi in the NDP caucus who penned that procedural poison? That would be Bob Rae, now a senior Liberal MP.

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