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Contempt, confidence and the budget: How Canada could go the polls

Editorial Cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

The number of people here on Parliament Hill who still believe a spring election is not a certainty could fit in the back of a taxi cab. With that in mind, let's consider once again when such an event might take place.

The Commons procedures and House affairs committee will meet for three days next week to discuss this week's ruling by Speaker Peter Milliken that, "on its face," the government withheld information from a parliamentary committee and that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda may have misled her fellow MPs.

If the committee upholds the finding - a near certainty given that the opposition members of the committee outnumber the Conservatives - there will be a vote in the Commons to decide whether the government and Ms. Oda are in contempt of Parliament. That would most certainly prompt an election.

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The committee must report back to the House by March 21, the day before the scheduled release of the federal budget. But 48 hours notice must be given before a vote can be held on any contempt motion. So it could not take place before March, 23, the day after the budget.

But there is one more possibility.

The government is required to give the Liberals an opposition supply day before March 26 and have said that will take place March 21. The Liberals could use that to move their own motion of no-confidence.

The Conservatives have not given an official notice that March 21 will be the day and they could well change their plans. It would seem odd for the government to open the door to a confidence vote the day before a budget.

Especially when, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters in Guelph, Ont. on Friday, "Canadians don't want an election, the country doesn't need and election, the thing that all parties should be focussing on is the Canadian economy."

Unless, of course, bringing themselves down and using the budget as their campaign platform is actually part of the Conservative plan.

Under normal circumstances, Conservative Whip Gordon O'Connor would have the ability to defer a vote on any motion for 24 hours. Had that been the case, he could put off any confidence motion entered by the Liberals on Monday until after the budget had been read on Tuesday.

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But this Liberal supply day, whenever is occurs, is also the final day of the current supply period. That means that votes on government estimates and interim supply - both of them confidence measures - must also take place on that day. And the Liberal motion, whatever it may be, cannot be deferred.

Complicated enough for you? The bottom line is that, if the Conservatives allow the Liberal supply day to go ahead on March 21, the vote will take place that day.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of speculation about whether the NDP would actually vote to bring down the government before a budget - and whether they could be enticed to prop up the government after the budget.

New Democrat Pat Martin made it clear Friday that he would to give all of the various allegations of anti-democratic activities that have been leveled against the Conservatives some gestation time.

"The NDP is ready willing and able to fight an election," he told reporters. But "I don't think all of these scandals have fully resonated with the public yet. I think in a couple weeks time, as these things reach critical mass, they will be resonating with the public and I think you will see the polls move dramatically at that time."

And for those of you who just can't get enough of this speculation, here is some mega-wonkery from Kady O'Malley at the CBC.

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