The Liberals say they are prepared to send Canadians to the polls to stop a Conservative attempt to put the government’s ethical controversies under further scrutiny, risking the possibility of starting a new campaign on the first anniversary of their re-election.
In a rare move, the minority government on Tuesday turned what would usually be an inconsequential vote on an opposition-day motion into a matter of confidence. If they lose, the Prime Minister would have to ask the Governor-General to call an election. The Bloc Québécois has already said it will support the Conservative motion, leaving the NDP with the balance of power in a vote that will take place on Wednesday afternoon.
In the past two days, the Liberals have quickly raised the stakes on an issue that has simmered since Parliament returned in September: whether and how to restart studies into the WE Charity controversy. After weeks of Liberal filibustering at standing committees that had been looking into the matter, the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives each proposed creating one special committee, but the proposals differ on scope and who should control it.
“The Conservatives put forward a motion that clearly outlines their lack of confidence in the government,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday in justifying his government’s decision to make the motion a matter of confidence.
“The opposition is going to have to decide whether or not they want to make this minority Parliament work or whether they have lost confidence in the government.”
The opposition charged back that the government is taking an unprecedented step to avoid accountability, noting that it was the Liberals who decided to make creating a House of Commons committee a matter of confidence. By convention, budgets and Throne Speeches are confidence votes, but the government can apply confidence to any issue in the House.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the Liberal decision a farce, absurd and outrageous; Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet said he doubts the Liberals are “light-headed enough” to go through with their threat; and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said while he has lost confidence in the government, he doesn’t want an election.
“In many parts of Canada, kids can’t go trick-or-treating, but the Liberals think Canadians should go to the polls, rather than their answering several simple questions,” Mr. O’Toole said on Tuesday.
The Liberal threat was triggered by a motion the Conservatives put on the House agenda on Thursday. It proposed the creation of an “anti-corruption” committee to study issues that include WE’s now-cancelled contract to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, the emergency commercial rent program, and reports that Robert Silver (husband of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff) lobbied the government over a wage subsidy program for employers.
Early on Tuesday, the Conservatives said they would remove the term “anti-corruption” from the committee’s name and amend their motion to say that the special committee would not “constitute legitimate grounds for calling a general election.”
“We hope this is about accountability and not about an election,” Mr. O’Toole said at a news conference.
However, the change was not enough for the Liberals, who said they would not support turning committees into “partisan inquisitions.”
“If you write a book about Frankenstein and you call it Cinderella, it’s still a book about Frankenstein,” Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said. “They’re clearly saying in this motion that the government is corrupt.”
In the committee proposed by the Conservatives and NDP, the Official Opposition would hold the chair – giving them more control over the proceedings. The Liberals propose that they should have the chair. They and the NDP both say the committee should look more broadly at spending related to COVID-19, including the now-cancelled Canada Student Service Grant.
Mr. Rodriguez said the Conservative motion would redirect government resources from pandemic response to document production and suck hours out of cabinet ministers' time by making them available to testify. Unlike the 26 other House of Commons committees that call senior civil servants and ministers to testify, he said this one would “paralyze” Parliament because it would have the power to “force” cabinet ministers to appear.
The motion as it is written by the Conservatives says certain ministers, including the Prime Minister, “may be ordered to appear as witnesses from time to time, as the committee sees fit.”
Citing continuing negotiations, the New Democrats wouldn’t say whether they will vote in favour of the Conservative motion. Leader Jagmeet Singh said there is enough similarity between the motions that they should be able to strike a deal and prevent an election. If they don’t, he said, the blame will lie with the Liberals.
“What’s become more and more clear to me is that the Prime Minister is not looking for a solution here, the Prime Minister is looking for an excuse to go to an election,” Mr. Singh said.
“It is ludicrous, that a government would say that an opposition-day motion on holding them to account is somehow a confidence motion. The whole job of opposition is to hold the government to account.”
The Green Party said it is still considering the Conservative motion.
“Today’s events in Parliament are equivalent to a game of chicken that Canadians just don’t need,” Leader Annamie Paul said.
Alice Constantinou of the Library of Parliament said a Canadian government has never fallen over the creation of a committee. But Ms. Constantinou said debates dating back to Confederation would need to be reviewed to determine whether this is the first time a government has made the issue a matter of confidence. Lori Turnbull, the director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, said this is the first time she’s seen a government do this.
Prof. Turnbull said the Liberal hard line comes at a risky time, with COVID-19 case counts spiking in several regions and a crisis in Nova Scotia around the fishing rights of Mi’kmaq peoples.
Because the Liberals raised the stakes on the vote in the House, Prof. Turnbull said it would be “a hard sell to Canadians” for the government to blame the opposition for an early election.
The Liberal election threat follows weeks of committee meetings stalled by filibustering government MPs, and the shutdown of Parliament just before more documents related to the WE controversy were to be released.
Prof. Turnbull said it’s possible the Liberals are expecting to strike a deal with the NDP, but the more the Liberals filibuster, “it’s going to be harder for Mr. Singh to partner with them.”
“When you line it all up like that, it looks like they must really not want this WE thing back in the news,” she said.
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