Martin's obsession with power.
While minority governments are often unstable, the year 2005 began with the Liberals safely ensconced in government. In January, Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert predicted that 2005 would be a politically uneventful year. But then explosive testimony during the second phase of the Gomery Commission examining the sponsorship scandal in Montreal revealed widespread political corruption. Advertising firms serving as sponsorship middlemen were found to have been paid exorbitant fees by the government in Ottawa and some of those companies would then donate money and services back to the ruling Liberal Party.
As a consequence, the Liberals' hold on power appeared tenuous. The Conservatives were pulling up close in the polls. Conservative leader Stephen Harper began to talk about bringing the government down. And so the political manoeuvering began.
On April 21, Martin addressed the nation pleading for time. He looked into the camera and said that the revelations of the Gomery Commission were serious, that he was upset about them, and that he would act upon Judge John Gomery's recommendations, expected to be released in December. He said there should not be an election until Gomery released his report in order to give the Liberal government time to rectify the systemic problems inherent in the scandal, but he would call one within 30 days of the final report.
Days later, the Prime Minister made a deal with NDP leader Jack Layton. Martin, who cruised to the Liberal leadership on the strength of his prudent handling of the finance portfolio under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, now promised an additional $4.6 billion in new spending on NDP priorities such as childcare, the environment and municipal infrastructure, without blinking an eye.
The Liberal-NDP deal was made after the Conservatives hinted that from here on in they would oppose the original budget. The Bloc and NDP had already stated their opposition to the budget introduced in February. After cynically buying NDP support, Martin defended the additional billions saying they were needed to avoid an expensive, unnecessary and unwanted election. One wag noted that the two leaders were not willing to spend $200 million on an election but were willing to spend $4.6 billion to avoid one.
In addition to the deal with Layton, Paul Martin and his cabinet ministers then announced over a three-week period 122 projects totaling $22.3 billion. Purpose: to buy public support and distract Canadians from Adscam.
Treating the public purse as the Liberals' own piggy bank was not the only trick in Martin's bag. Over the next few weeks with their typical unscrupulousness, the Liberals postponed key votes that might go against them. Using procedural tactics, they delayed the reading of the budget while stripping the Conservatives of their opposition days so they could not introduce confidence motions. On May 10, the Conservatives broke through, but after their winning a non-confidence vote, 153-150, with Bloc support, the Liberals ignored it. Twice over the next two days the government again lost non-confidence votes but refused to resign. This clinging to power was a constitutional novelty. Ottawa Citizen columnist David Warren called it "the most disgraceful [week] in our Parliamentary history." The National Post's Andrew Coyne had even stronger words: "The bottom has fallen out of Canadian politics. There are, quite literally, no rules any more, no boundaries, no limits. We are staring into an abyss, where everything is permissible."
During the third week of May, the Liberals went into overdrive to change the 153-150 vote division against them. With several Conservative MPs sick with cancer, the Liberals began offering deals to others. They approached independent MP Chuck Cadman with an offer of a Senate appointment. Cadman voted with the government on the budget, but if he had been given a deal he did not live to collect the reward. He died in July.
Conservative MPs Gurmant and Nina Grewal were offered various patronage appointments to switch parties but the negotiations lingered. Meanwhile the Liberals caught a bigger fish with the buying of Tory MP and former leadership hopeful Belinda Stronach. On May 17, two days before the budget vote, Stronach, a vocal critic of the government on fiscal matters during the previous year, abandoned her party for the Liberals, landing a spot in the cabinet as a reward. And so, on May 18, with Stronach and Cadman voting for the budget at second reading, the vote was tied, whereupon the Speaker of the House, Peter Milliken (a Liberal), cast the decisive tie-breaking vote in favour of the Liberals.
Not all was done, though. The Conservatives mused about further confidence votes and Martin faced pressure from within his party to hold off on the vote on same-sex "marriage." Several Liberals were rumoured to be considering leaving the party and voting against the budget on third reading scheduled for late June, in order to bring down the government and defeat C-38. By now, the fate of C-38 and the budget were intimately connected. If the remainder of the budget passed, so would same-sex "marriage." If it were defeated, C-38 would die on the House floor with the fall of the government and new elections. In late June the Conservatives were readying for both a budget and marriage battle; and London-Fanshawe MP Pat O'Brien left the Liberals to sit as an independent and vote against Bill C-38 and the budget.
On June 24 there came another ruse: the government passed a motion to extend debate on the budget to the following week. Then just before midnight after they had tallied the number of Conservatives who had left the House of Commons, they called another vote on the budget and won. Prior to it, they had bought off the 52 members of the Bloc after Quebec public service unions began to put pressure on the party to approve the budget, the unions being among the beneficiaries of the new spending Martin. The budget passed and, on June 28, so did C-38. The House recessed and the Liberal government survived the tumultuous session.
While Harper understandably criticized the Martin Liberals as a party that "will make any deal with anybody" to hold on to power, the Conservative leader himself shares some blame. This party had been outsmarted on June 24--a sign that however corrupt the Liberals might be they had smarter tacticians calling the shots in the House. In addition, the Tories had failed to strike against the government when it was most vulnerable, that is, right after the damning testimony at the Gomery commission. Instead of moving to defeat the Liberals then, Harper vacillated, unsure of whether it was in his electoral interests to face the voters sooner than his own game plan had anticipated. This provided Martin with the time to make deals, plot strategy and, ultimately, snatch victory from the jaws of seeming defeat.
Canada will pay a price for Martin's power-play: billions in new spending and, more importantly, the weakening of Parliament's procedures; but, above all that, the country will regret the attack on the foundational institution of society, marriage. That's the real scandal.
Paul Tuns is the editor of the monthly pro-life newspaper The Interim and author of Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal.
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|Title Annotation:||Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2005|
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