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Minority report

Monday, October 18, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

Let's all be thankful that the Bloc Quebecois agreed to amend their subamendment to the Conservatives' amendment to the Speech from the Throne. If they hadn't, then the Conservatives may have had to move to withdraw some of their amendments, or the NDP may have been compelled to introduce its own series of amendments.

In a country faced with a wide range of economic, environmental and social challenges, it seems somewhat strange that last week's events following the reading of the Throne Speech are what passes for political intrigue. Unfortunately, given the fact that very little was actually resolved by the game of "political chicken" (a distasteful phrase used openly by Conservative Deputy Leader Peter MacKay), we're probably going to be seeing more of the same kinds of antics over the weeks and months to come.

What made the phony crisis so hard to comprehend for many observers is the fact that we were dealing with a Throne Speech - not a budget, not a piece of legislation, and not anything that would actually affect the lives of a single Canadian outside of the House of Commons. If the contents of Liberal Throne Speeches actually meant anything:

a.. We wouldn't be paying the GST (the 1994 Throne Speech promised that it would be replaced).
b.. We wouldn't have the worst record in the industrialized world on the environment, as indicated by an OECD report released in late September (the same Throne Speech promised to make Canada "a leader in promoting sustainable development").
c.. We'd have a national childcare program (a promise from 1994, resurrected for 2004).
d.. We wouldn't have needed the Sponsorship Inquiry (the 1996 Throne Speech promised "the highest standards of integrity and honesty" in government).
e.. We would have one national Canadian Securities Commission, instead of one operating in each province (promised in 1996 and again in 2002).
f.. We'd have a national pharmacare program (also promised in 1997 and 2001).
g.. Over half the federal surplus generated since 1997 would have gone towards new program spending, instead of toward tax cuts and debt reduction (as promised in 1997).
h.. Student debt levels would be falling instead of increasing (1997, again).
ยท The majority of toxic waste sites under federal jurisdiction would have been cleaned up, instead of a paltry 18% of them (1999).

a.. We be well on our way to ensuring that the employment, housing and social needs of First Nations' people were met (as promised in 2001).
b.. We would have taken steps to lower greenhouse gas emissions, instead of allowing them to continue to increase (1997, 2001, 2004 - a hat trick!).

My point is that, given that governments - particularly Liberal governments -- can and do say anything they want in a Throne Speech, there is little point in the opposition parties expending their energy and political capital on attempting to amend it. There was nothing binding in the Liberals' Throne Speech as originally worded, and there is nothing binding in the Throne Speech as amended.

My take on the situation is that Stephen Harper feels robbed of a victory that he felt was within reach going into the election in June (recall that he was so troubled by the last Liberal victory that he penned the infamous "firewall manifesto", calling on Alberta to withdraw from federal programs). With the Liberals in a minority situation, he was aching for a chance to flex his political muscles at the first available opportunity, even if that opportunity was a symbolic one. He may even have hoped that his marriage of convenience with the Bloc Quebec might earn him the opportunity to form a government.

But, if the Liberal minority is an unstable one, a Conservative-Bloc minority would be even more unstable. Moreover, given how passionately Harper's core constituency despises the separatists (that is, even more passionately than they hate the Liberals), allying with the Bloc to form a government would be a risky strategy indeed. As Maclean's columnist Paul Wells notes in his webblog, "the spectacle of even a tacit Harper-Duceppe alliance would render the Conservatives radioactive in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, at the very least, for a generation."

Gilles Duceppe's motives are far more transparent. As the one party leader who can never aspire to be Prime Minister, Duceppe knows that his only opportunity to affect the federal government's agenda comes through using his seat totals to threaten the existence of the government. From that strategy was born the infamous subamendment, calling on the federal government to address the so-called fiscal imbalance between the federal government and the provinces (although provinces outside of Quebec seemed a little perplexed at the notion when asked about it last week).

Meanwhile, the NDP's Jack is in a difficult position. He's not completely happy with the Liberals' promises, and he has even less faith in their commitment to keep them. At the same time, he has no interest in facilitating a palace coup that would see Stephen Harper and Paul Martin changing seats in the House of Commons. His approach must therefore be to continue to criticize the Liberals - as he has done - while working with the opposition only to the degree that doing so gets NDP policies implemented. Last week's game of chicken wouldn't have accomplished that goal, so Layton was absolutely correct to refuse to play.

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