50-50 How did we get here? A matter of debate
Among the issues debated Tuesday night by the leaders was the reason the four of them were standing around in that room for two hours in the first place.
In other words, why exactly are we having an election anyway?
Canadians are mystified and so is the rest of the world, according to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
"What the world is looking at right now, and is saying, [is] Canada's got the strongest recovery of any country on Earth and suddenly it's plunged into a fourth election in seven years and Canadians don't know why. Canadians don't know why we're doing this," he said.
Then he tried to shed some light on the matter and tell Canadians why we're having an election: "We're having an election because the other three political parties saw an opportunity to go after the government."
Not so, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff responded. Here's his explanation for why Canadians are going to the polls on May 2: "You stiffed Parliament Mr. Harper, and that's why your government lost confidence, that's why we're having an election."
In his opinion, the cause of the election is no big mystery to voters: "Canadians know exactly why we're having an election. We're having an election because you didn't tell Parliament the truth about your budget costs, about any of the numbers, they became unbelievable ... eventually the confidence of the whole Parliament was lost, that's why we're having an election."
So we have two different versions of events from Harper and Ignatieff about how we wound up in yet another election campaign.
Harper says it was nothing more than political opportunism by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois who were intent on bringing his government down, whereas Ignatieff says it's because Harper "didn't tell Canadians the truth, because you abused democracy."
The two leaders will have to agree to disagree, but what can't be debated is that what technically triggered the election was the motion of non-confidence passed in the House of Commons on the afternoon of Friday, March 25.
The meaning of contempt
That motion asked MPs to agree with the report from the standing committee on procedure and house affairs that concluded the government was in contempt, and "consequently, the House has lost confidence in the government."
The three opposition parties voted in favour of the motion, the Conservatives voted against it. It passed, and that's why we're in an election.
Harper said it himself during the debate: "You had more votes than we did." He dismissed "the so-called contempt motion" as "simply a case of the other three parties outvoting us."
Harper was probably right to call it a so-called contempt motion, because it was actually a non-confidence motion that brought down his government.
The non-confidence motion, however, was based on a contempt finding - by a committee, not by Parliament.
For his part, Ignatieff was overstating it to say during the debate that Harper had been found in contempt of Parliament by the Speaker of the House of Commons "twice."
Harper himself wasn't found in contempt, nor did Speaker Peter Milliken issue any such findings of contempt - he can't. Only MPs can find each other in contempt by asking Parliament to support a vote on such a finding in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives were on the losing side of two rulings by the Speaker when he determined there were "prima facie" cases of the privileges of MPs being breached, one involving the Bev Oda/Kairos funding affair; the other, the government's refusal to provide appropriate spending estimates for its proposed crime legislation among other things.
Those rulings eventually paved the way for the committee to find the government in contempt, thus prompting the motion that eventually brought it down.
Why did the committee find the government in contempt? That is a rather long story, which dragged on over the course of several months.
To make that long story very short: basically the opposition parties began asking the government last fall for cost estimates on the crime bills, the F-35 fighter jet procurement and corporate tax cuts.
At first, the government argued it couldn't release the information because it was protected under what is called cabinet confidence or, as it is sometimes called, executive privilege.
But the opposition parties did not give up, and after much procedural wrangling, the government did start sharing some numbers, though it was too little too late for the opposition.
The Conservatives say they've always given the opposition parties the information they wanted, but all three opposition parties say that's not true and that the Tories were trying to withhold the true costs of their policies from Canadians.
They will have to agree to disagree on that front too.
The bottom line of all this is we're having an election because a majority of MPs voted in favour of a motion that said confidence had been lost in the government, because a committee had found it in contempt.
A Canadian government has never before been found in contempt but Harper doesn't give much weight to a finding that might go down in the history books.
He tends to shrug it off, as he did during the debate: "First of all, everybody should realize the so-called contempt motion Mr. Ignatieff speaks of is not a ruling of a court or a ruling of the Speaker, it was simply a case of the other three parties outvoting us. We don't agree with that."
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