Saturday, May 28, 2005

The "Genius" of Wile E. Harper

It could be just me, but when I read this story in the National Post about the Tories' plans for Parliament next week, I started to experience the same feeling I get when watching a Road Runner cartoon:

The Conservatives have set the stage for a potentially acrimonious return to Parliament on Monday by blindsiding the government with three motions -- including one calling for indictments in the sponsorship inquiry -- for the first opposition day since the House of Commons showdown began last month.

The first Conservative motion listed on the order paper calls on the government to amend the terms of reference for Justice John Gomery's inquiry into the sponsorship scandal "to allow the commissioner to name names and assign responsibility" ...

... In Ottawa, Conservative party spokesman Geoff Norquay acknowledged that Gomery motion on Monday is not binding on the government and will be no more than an expression of advice from the Commons. However, he said, the party intends in part to test the extent of the alliance the NDP forged with the Liberals in order to pass the budget ...

... The government also said yesterday that one of the motions, expressing non-confidence in the government, contradicts Mr. Harper's pledge not to try to topple the Liberals following the cliff-hanger confidence vote on May 19.

Furthermore, since the Conservatives gave the required 48-hour notice on three motions rather than one for the opposition House day scheduled for Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Liberal House leader Tony Valeri said the manoeuvre does not allow the Liberals a fair opportunity to prepare for the debate ...

For everyone else's information, the motions may be found here. The second motion, not mentioned in the Post story, is a housekeeping motion that confirms two Opposition days alloted to the Bloc Québécois: one for the end of the month, the other for the week after.

There are three reasons why this reminds me of a Road Runner cartoon. The first is that these are obvious traps. The second is that they're obviously designed to fail in their stated purpose. (I'll get to the third later.)

With the addition of a new Liberal MP from Newfoundland, it's obvious that the Tories and the Bloc won't have enough votes to defeat the government on a vote of confidence (assuming that the three independents voted the way they did in passing the budget).

So why put these on the table? To put the Liberals and the NDP on the record.

If the Liberals and NDP vote against the first motion (the one allowing the Gomery commission to point fingers), the Tories can claim that the government is trying to evade responsibility for corruption, and the NDP is helping them. If the two parties vote against the second motion (alloting opposition days to the Bloc) then the BQ can claim the government is trying to suppress democracy and subvert the parliamentary process.

The third motion (the one of non-confidence) may fail, and probably will. But it's also designed as the litmus test of the NDP's commitment to the Liberals. If the NDP is shaken by the vote to amend Gomery's mandate, they might vote for the non-confidence motion.

However, the odds of this happening are pretty long. Since the budget legislation is still in the committee stage, if the government falls, the NDP's hard-won budgetary gains will collapse. So you can count on the NDP propping up the Liberals for a while yet.

The Tories seem to believe that the results of these motions, if negative, will nonethless advance their agenda by giving them ammunition to hammer in the corruption them and deprive the NDP of the moral high ground by forcing their support of the Liberals.

Now, remember that I said there was a third reason for this reminding me of a Road Runner cartoon? It's this: I have the suspicion that somehow, someway, this is going to blow up in Stephen Harper's face. Like all those Road Runner traps that backfire on the Coyote. He's set up an anvil to fall on the Grits and the NDP, but odds are pretty good it's going to cause him a headache.

You've probably already spotted one weakness: the motion isn't really binding on the Gomery inquiry itself. But there's also the fact that the PM has been pretty much "hands-off" with regard to the inquiry; it's the ex-Prime Minister and his cronies who are trying to shut it down. This motion can enable the Liberals to accuse Harper of trying to interfere with an impartial inquiry, and it's a charge that can stick.

Another weakness is the absolute transparency of these motions and their intent. The Liberals are certainly clever enough to spot and evade the traps, but their very obviousness is a sign that politics in Ottawa is going to stay "as usual." Certainly they won't increase public respect for the federal process -- and because the Tories are initiating this motion, Harper will be blamed for not raising the level of political decorum.

I'm sure the more pessimistic Tories (not to mention their detractors) can think of more ways that this can backfire, but I think you get the drift.

Of course there's always the chance that Harper and the Tories will propose some positive actions for Parliament before the upcoming summer recess. But they don't have all that much time ...