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The Liberals had the leverage this week — but it might not last

This week’s excitement ended quietly on Wednesday afternoon, brought to a formal conclusion by a vote of 180 nays to 146 yeas.

The defeat of the Conservative motion — with the New Democrats and Greens joining the Liberals in opposing the proposal for what was originally billed as an “anti-corruption committee” — forestalls the immediate prospect of a snap election. Justin Trudeau will not be visiting Rideau Hall on Thursday to ask for the dissolution of Parliament.

But the break in the tension may be short-lived and it’s not clear how the partisan players will conduct themselves now in the wake of this week’s showdown.

To borrow a phrase from baseball, the Trudeau government’s actions this week feel like the equivalent of a brushback pitch. The Liberals seemed to think the opposition was crowding the plate, so they fired a four-seam fastball high and inside. One of the opposition parties decided that the motion wasn’t worth getting hit in the head over, and stepped back.

By that measure, the Liberals succeeded — however much observers might find their tactics unsportsmanlike.

The Conservatives try again

But the Conservatives still seem willing to dig in. On Thursday, they will have another opportunity to put a motion before the House of Commons. The proposal they seem set to go with this time is arguably even more aggressive than what they tried to do on Tuesday.

WATCH | The At Issue panel discusses the politics behind the latest confidence vote:


The At Issue panel discusses the politics behind the latest confidence vote and whether the federal government actually wanted to go to the polls. Plus, in this extended version, the panellists talk about the risks and benefits for all levels of government in calling an election during a pandemic. 16:35

The motion, which was added to the notice paper on Tuesday night, calls for the health committee to launch a study on “on the emergency situation facing Canadians in light of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” with 16 specific points of emphasis.

The ambitious motion would order an expansive release of government documents, memos and correspondence from a half-dozen offices and departments, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency. It also would give government officials 15 days to comply with those orders.

If the Liberals thought the earlier Conservative proposal was meant to “jam” the government (to borrow Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez’s word for it), then they might have similar objections to this new idea. Would the Liberals also view this motion as a matter of confidence? If so, would the NDP be once again willing to sidestep an election?

No deal with the NDP?

It’s not clear that the Liberals and the NDP arrived at any understanding during their discussions ahead of Wednesday afternoon’s vote. If any deals were made or concessions offered, no one is saying.

In response to the Conservatives’ proposal for an “anti-corruption committee,” the Liberals suggested that a special committee be struck to study all pandemic-related spending by the federal government. The Liberals and NDP did not agree on the composition of that committee, or who would chair it. The fate of that proposal remains unclear.

It’s also not yet clear how the House finance and ethics committees will proceed. It was the standoffs between the government and opposition at those two committees that precipitated the Conservatives’ call for a special committee. It remains to be seen whether the defeat of the Conservative motion will break those logjams – a Liberal filibuster continued at the finance committee on Wednesday night.

“This is my fourth minority Parliament,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday after the anticlimactic votes in the House. “I know those minority Parliaments can work when people from different parties decide to work together.”

When the tables were turned

Having served in those earlier minorities (from 2004 to 2011) Rodriguez is no doubt aware that they were held together by a mix of compromise, threats, brinkmanship, cooperation, deference, extraordinary measures — and luck.

In December 2007 and then again in the summer of 2008, Stephen Harper told the Liberal opposition that they needed to “fish or cut bait” (and when they refused to defeat his government, he went to Rideau Hall and requested the dissolution of Parliament himself). At various points, Rodriguez and his Liberal colleagues abstained from voting on Conservative measures to avoid triggering an election.

What the Liberals did this week could be viewed as an attempt to banish the bad memories of those five years they spent squirming in opposition against Harper’s minority Conservative governments — or as an attempt to assert the sort of strength that those Conservative governments exercised.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question in the House of Commons in 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

David Herle, a senior strategist for Paul Martin’s Liberal government during the minority Parliament that lasted from 2004 to 2006, observed this week that while “a majority government’s strength is in its numbers in the House … a minority government’s strength is derived from its numbers with voters.”

For as long as the Liberals remain ahead in the polls, they might have that leverage to work with. But (to borrow another phrase from games) there is always the risk of overplaying one’s hand. And the opposition parties will now have a chance to respond — either within Parliament or by appealing directly to the public to harshly judge the way the government is comporting itself.

If a government wants to keep Parliament working, it can’t rely only on shows of strength.

Lurking beyond the usual political and parliamentary consideration is one factor that defies precedent: a global pandemic.

While governing parties in New Brunswick and British Columbia don’t seem to have suffered for plunging their provinces into early elections, there is still the possibility that the public will take a dim view of any party seen to be irresponsibly pushing the country into an unnecessary election.

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