Why Parliament could be on the brink of a snap election — again
Are the Liberals playing a game of chicken with the opposition?
"This is pure partisan politics," Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez said on Friday, referring to a Conservative motion that would have the House of Commons establish an "anti-corruption committee."
It shouldn't surprise Rodriguez — an MP with more than a decade of experience in Ottawa — to find partisan politics going on around him. As gambling is to a casino, partisanship is to Parliament — it's the reason people are there.
And as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently observed (speaking of his inclination to continue with byelections in Toronto), Canadians need to know that their democratic institutions are durable and flexible enough to continue functioning even through a public health emergency.
So the operative question isn't who is doing politics here. It's who will end up doing the politics better — or at least less badly. And in this case, the politics comes with the tantalizing possibility of a snap election.
Right now, Liberal MPs are filibustering two House committees over disputes about how to proceed with inquiries into the government's affairs. As a result, the Conservatives now might ask the House on Tuesday to establish the aforementioned "anti-corruption committee."
This committee would pursue several questions the Conservatives have about the government's handling of pandemic-related programs, including the WE Charity affair and allegations that the husband of Trudeau's chief of staff lobbied the government about one program. It also would demand disclosure of any internal government correspondence about the government's decision to prorogue Parliament.
One of the other demands for documents in the Conservative motion — covering 12 years of records from the private agency that handled public speaking appearances by Trudeau, his wife, mother and brother — mirrors an order that was passed by a House committee this summer.
But that previous order expired when Trudeau had Parliament prorogued. There's also an active dispute over whether government officials went too far in redacting information from some documents that have been turned over already.
If the Liberals had a majority in the House, the new Conservative motion would be doomed. They don't, of course — and if the Conservatives are joined by the Bloc Quebecois and NDP in voting in favour, the motion will pass and the creatively named committee will be established.
Previous hearings on the ill-fated Canada Student Service Grant did not find any actual corruption before things came to a sudden halt with prorogation in August. The Liberals could claim now that the opposition parties are merely trying to embark on a grand fishing expedition. Even if no outright corruption is ever uncovered, the anti-corruption committee could sustain questions and news stories about the possibility of corruption for weeks.
Conservatives could reasonably reply to the Liberals' claim by pointing out that turnabout is fair play. There was no particular need for Trudeau to prorogue Parliament for a month. He could have allowed House committees to continue meeting while his government prepared a throne speech.
If the prime minister was within his rights to clear the public agenda ahead of that reset, the opposition is within its rights to be even louder in jamming things up again now.
The Liberals are countering the Conservative motion with their own proposal to establish a special committee that would look at all pandemic-related spending by the government — which is similar to an idea already floated by the NDP.
Such a committee could end up looking into some of the same things the Conservatives want to examine (though it's not clear how the Liberals would deal with outstanding demands for document disclosure) but it would take a broader view. Presumably, it also wouldn't be called the "anti-corruption committee."
A confidence game
Rodriguez notably declined to answer directly when he was asked Friday whether the Liberals would treat the Conservative motion as a matter of confidence — that is, whether the prime minister would ask the governor general to call an election if the motion passes.
That leaves open the possibility the government will try to use the possibility of an election as leverage in negotiations between now and Tuesday. (The government also could rearrange the House schedule to push the Conservative motion to a later date.)
"We are entirely focused on the second wave of COVID-19," Trudeau said last Monday when he was asked about the disputes at the House ethics and finance committees. "The Conservatives continue to want to focus on WE Charity. So be it."
It should be possible for politicians to focus on more than one thing at a time, of course. But the Liberals might also believe history shows that voters are willing to look past controversies, purported scandals and parliamentary battles if it seems like the government is properly focused on the major economic and social concerns of the day.
For five years, the Liberals (and NDP) used the advantages afforded by minority parliaments to pursue their concerns about Stephen Harper's government. But it wasn't until 2015 — after the Liberals had found a popular leader and assembled a deep and ambitious platform — that voters were ready to change governments.
On the other hand, Harper's approach to Parliament and governing probably contributed ultimately to the Conservatives ending up back in opposition. The Liberal decision to prorogue Parliament in August was not unlike the Harper approach.
Erin O'Toole's Conservatives eventually will have to explain what they would do if they were in government. Depending on how things go on Tuesday, they might have to provide a full explanation very soon.
But unless someone really wants an election this fall, there probably won't be one.
Instead, there could be some kind of parliamentary inquiry into the government's economic and fiscal response to the pandemic. And if the Liberals agree to that, it will be because the opposition compelled them. That, at least, is the sort of thing that a minority parliament is supposed to accomplish.
Listen: CBC Radio's The House on Parliament and the WE Charity scandal
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