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How Stephen Harper's second minority government will fall

A sculptured face is hit by morning light inside the House of Commons foyer entrance on March 24, 2011.


And so begins a historic day in Canadian politics.

Sometime, shortly after noon, the second minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper will fall - brought down by a motion that speaks, not only of no-confidence but of the government's contempt of Parliament.

It will be an extraordinary Friday in so many ways.

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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will rise this morning and read a relatively short indictment of the government: "That the House agree with the finding of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that the government is in contempt of Parliament, which is unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary history, and consequently, the House has lost confidence in the government."

It is contempt without sanction - except that an election is sanction in itself.

There will be debate on the motion. The Conservatives will rise to defend their record. The opposition members will rise to deride it. There will be talk of prorogation and secrecy, and also of the government's economic successes and the "opportunistic election."

The parties have lined up their best orators - the MPs who can deliver the most sting. The NDP, for instance, will set Yvon Godin, the Whip, and Winnipeg MP Pat Martin loose to recount the government's faults.

At 11:15, the debate about contempt will break for Question Period - an oddly futile 45-minute round of jousting that matters little given that all business before the House is about to end. It will be the last time this particular configuration of MPs will engage in the daily spectacle.

And it will be the last time that Speaker Peter Milliken will preside over the sparring match. He steps out of his chair for the last time Friday and will likely deliver a farewell address that looks back on his years of service.

The vote will take place at about 1:30

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When Mr. Harper brought down the Liberal government of Paul Martin in 2004 on a confidence vote, his wife Laureen and their children were in the gallery of the House of Commons.

This time, Mr. Ignatieff's wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, will sit in virtually the same spot. NDP Leader Jack Layton's sister, Nancy, will also be there.

It is impossible to say what the mood will be like when the results are announced.

When the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark was defeated on December 13, 1979, the floor of the Commons erupted with cheers, papers were tossed into the air, and Mr. Clark stood to solemnly accept his fate.

But, in 2005, it was a much more sombre, and collegial affair.

Canadian Press scribe Bruce Cheadle, who was present for that vote, described "curious transformation" on the green-carpeted aisle between warring oak benches. "Dozens of MPs of all four federal parties slowly spilled into the breach, clasping hands, laughing, kissing cheeks, slapping shoulders," he wrote.

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Watching the animosity and vitriol that has enveloped the House in recent months, it is difficult to believe that such collegiality could mark the end of the 40th Parliament.

But so much of the angry rhetoric from both sides is theatre. And these politicians have spent much time together in committees, in the House, and in the bars and restaurants of Ottawa when the business of running the country has ended for the day.

So expect hand-shaking and hugs and even some wistful remembrances.

And then it's off to defeat each other on the campaign trail.

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