The party that once abhorred “legislative tricks” in opposition may have found its best one yet.
Now, this bit of legerdemain only works if the conditions are just right: One opposition party is broke, the other has a brand-new leader, you as the leader of the governing party have a healthy lead in the polls, and the public, which is preoccupied with a pandemic, has absolutely zero appetite for an election.
With sleight of hand, and with Canadians looking away at things like the vacant storefronts in their neighbourhoods, you may now go ahead and declare anything and everything a matter of “confidence.” A mundane motion to create a committee to investigate a scandal? Boom! It’s a matter of confidence. What’s next? Will the government threaten to send Canadians to the polls over some backbencher’s motion to adjourn?
You see, the trick works because by turning any old opposition motion into a confidence vote, the Liberals position themselves to win either way: Either they get the election they swear they don’t want and can blame another party, like the NDP, for pulling the trigger, or they successfully block an undesirable motion, such as one to create an opposition-controlled special committee to probe the WE scandal, and live to avoid committee scrutiny one more day. It’s a win-win.
The genius of the trick is in the quagmire it creates for the opposition parties. Earlier this week, for example, the NDP, Greens and independents in the House had to decide whether they would support the Conservatives' motion – and thus be seen as triggering an election – or oppose the Tory motion and be seen as abetting Liberal attempts to duck accountability. They chose the latter, but either way, for them, it was lose-lose.
Those who follow politics closely would have known that had the NDP voted with the Conservatives, the blame for a snap election would have ultimately rested with the Liberals for declaring an unexceptional motion a matter of confidence. But the average voter, who no doubt has better things to do than review the conventions of confidence matters in minority parliaments, probably would not have seen it that way. Indeed, the headlines would have described NDP votes as the catalyst for the dissolution of Parliament, and the Liberals, who would have had to suck in their cheeks to hide their smiles (oh, to whom might voters have turned if angry with the NDP, I wonder?), could have professed their regret and dismay along with Canadians: Why, we didn’t want an election, either. We are in a pandemic, after all.
That has, in fact, become the new choice refrain favoured by Liberals when questioned about their stonewalling of committee requests or their decision to turn an Opposition Day motion into a confidence vote: We have to do this. We are in a pandemic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said as much in an interview with Radio-Canada Wednesday, when he accused the Conservatives of putting forth a “toxic motion” with their push for a committee on WE and accused them of “paralyzing” a government that is focused on helping people through a health crisis.
The Prime Minister neglected to mention that some governments are capable of both answering questions and governing at the same time (a braggart might have made that point while chewing gum) and, indeed, that a committee investigating the potential misallocation of pandemic funds is actually perfectly in sync with a responsible, reflexive approach to governing through a crisis, not tangential to it. But I guess to make such points is to risk the paralysis of a government that is singularly focused on navigating the ongoing pandemic – and banning single-use plastics, funding electric vehicle manufacturing in Ontario, allowing municipal handgun bans and following Toronto by-elections.
In any case, with this new legislative trick ready at his disposal, Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have to worry too much about wasting time on matters about which his government doesn’t explicitly approve. He may simply deem them a distraction from the more pressing issue of the pandemic and, if so inclined, label them a matter of confidence and force the opposition to choose between two undesirable outcomes. Like other legislative tricks his party loathed when it wasn’t in power – giant omnibus bills to bury legislation and the use of prorogation to snuff out scandals, for example – these tools suddenly seem pretty useful when your party is the one holding the reins.
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