Dion feeling the pressure from middle-of-the-roaders in caucus

Anti-terrorism and anti-scab bills are dividing Liberal MPs

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The Gazette, Friday, February 23, 2007

It has been many years since the House of Commons has erupted with such hooting, howling and cries of "shame" as it did on Wednesday, when Stephen Harper started to read from a Vancouver Sun article naming the father-in-law of Liberal MP Navdeep Bains as one who might be exempted from testifying at the Air India inquiry unless the Liberals agreed to renew expiring provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Although it was clear what the prime minister intended to insinuate, he never got to go there, as the Liberals exploded in a fury of high dudgeon and righteous indignation.

But then, it was Wednesday, after the parties' weekly caucus meetings, when the House is on testosterone alert. On such days, as Brian Mulroney once said, "the boys want to see blood on the floor and you have to give it to them."

Moreover, both the Liberals and the Conservatives wanted to change the channel, the Liberals from the storyline that they are badly divided, and the Conservatives from the pounding they're taking for amending the consultation process for naming federal judges.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion, already reeling from bad leadership numbers in one poll and the news he was Canadians' third choice for prime minister in another, had a very difficult conversation with his caucus over his determination to vote against renewing the five-year sunset provisions of the terrorism law, C-36, allowing preventive arrests and special police investigations.

For his part, Harper has taken a hit this week in a statement by the Canadian Judicial Council, comprised of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the chiefs of all provincial courts of appeal, that his changes to the consultation process threatened the independence of the judiciary. Pretty strong stuff, coming from the highest judicial body in the land, and obvious ammunition for the opposition parties accusing Harper of wanting to pack the courts with Tory cronies and, worse, neo-cons and even, horror, theo-cons.

It was this very accusation that stopped Harper's momentum cold in the last week of the 2006 campaign, costing him at least 20 urban seats in Ontario and British Columbia.

But he remains undeterred in his pursuit of a crackdown on crime and less lenient sentences by the courts, being more concerned with the rights of victims than the accused. This pits Harper against the entire Canadian legal establishment, a fight he cannot win.

Shock, horror, a Conservative government is naming Conservatives to fill vacancies on judicial recommendation committees, just as the Liberals named Liberals before them. Even worse, it is adding a police representative in each province, and telling judges sitting on the committees they can vote on recommending candidates for the bench only in case of a tie.

"Judicial independence is not the private right of judges," the chief justices wrote in their communique, "but the foundation of judicial impartiality and a constitutional right of all Canadians."

This sets the judicial branch on an apparent collision court with the executive in the legislature, unless one of them blinks.

As for Dion, he has nothing to learn from Harper in sheer obstinacy.

He told his caucus Wednesday there was no going back on his decision to oppose renewal of the C-36 provisions set to lapse at month's end. He said he would lay down a three-line whip, meaning every Liberal was expected to show up and support the leader. And if they didn't, word was sanctions might even include Dion not signing their nomination papers at the next election.

It's not clear this is the best way for Dion to win the hearts and minds of his caucus.

Dion says it's a matter of protecting the Charter rights of Canadians, and the Liberals are the party of the Charter. But he wasn't troubled by Charter rights when he voted in favour of C-36 as a member of the Chretien cabinet.

And he is ignoring the advice of two former deputy prime ministers, John Manley and Anne McLellan, that the C-36 provisions should be renewed. Irwin Cotler, the renowned civil libertarian and a former justice minister, has also urged renewal. So has Bob Rae, the former head of the first Air India inquiry, who is co-chairperson of the Liberal platform committee.

There is more division in Liberal ranks over a Bloc Quebecois private member's "anti-scab" bill to ban replacement workers in strikes. It was no surprise when the NDP supported the Bloc in the early stages of the bill, but it was when the Liberals did before it went to committee.

And now another test looms for Dion's leadership when the government introduces back-to-work legislation to end the CN rail strike.

The NDP and Bloc will oppose. What will Dion and the Liberals do?

It's getting crowded over there on the left.

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