Words matter in a minority Parliament

Wording of motions allows MPs to dance on the head of a pin

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The Gazette, Friday, April 27, 2007

Words are important, especially in resolutions that come before a minority House, where parties look for room to dance on the head of a pin.

In an opposition day on Tuesday, the Bloc Quebecois proposed a motion on Kyoto that was meant to embarrass the government and stake out its own position advocating a carbon exchange in Montreal. Stephen Harper saw the blitz coming, called an audible at the line of scrimmage, and confounded the Bloc by having the Conservatives support it.

The Liberals had their own motion, to end Canada's mission in Afghanistan by February 2009. The Bloc supported it. But the NDP, which would withdraw our troops immediately, opposed it.

The Bloc motion was adopted unanimously, 283-0. The Liberal motion was defeated, 150-134, because the NDP voted against a withdrawal deadline on a mission to which it is opposed.

Words are important.

Parsing of the text of the Bloc motion, it was quite supportable for the Conservatives on two points. First, it called on the government "to set fixed greenhouse-gas reduction targets as soon as possible so as to meet the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol." All this, and here's the hook, "as a prerequisite for the establishment, as soon as possible, of a carbon exchange in Montreal."

As for setting "fixed greenhouse-gas reduction targets as soon as possible," the government had no problem with that. This is precisely what Environment Minister John Baird was announcing yesterday, hard targets for reducing GHG emissions. They just weren't Kyoto targets. But they were certainly hard.

And Canada supports the goals of Kyoto, it just won't meet the timeline of 2008-2012. But the Kyoto compliance dates weren't mentioned, just the principle that emission-reduction targets be adopted "so as to meet the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol."

There's certainly enough room to dance on the head of that pin. In any event, Harper could look past the mention of Kyoto to the reference to the establishment of a carbon-exchange market in Montreal.

Well, if we're going into the business of buying and selling emissions credits, it might as well be in our own country. As for Montreal, it makes sense. The equities market is in Toronto, and the commodities market is in Montreal. CO2 is a commodity.

The Bloc has been giving this a hard push, but no one is going to outflank Harper in Quebec, which he sees as one of his main stops on the road to a majority.

But for pirouettes on the head of a pin, it's hard to beat the NDP's opposition to the Liberal motion that Ottawa serve notice to NATO immediately that "Canada will end its combat operations in southern Afghanistan in February 2009."

Huh? Doesn't the NDP want to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan? Yes, that was their pretext, and their point, in opposing the Liberal motion. The NDP wants out now, not two years from now.

There's another interesting wrinkle to the Liberal motion. While it called for an end to the mission in Kandahar in 2009, it didn't call for Canada to leave the country altogether. It very much left the door open for Canada to rotate its troops out of the south and redeploy to a less dangerous corner of the country.

And even Harper hasn't closed the door on that.

Asked in an interview with Policy Options in January whether in terms of burden-sharing with NATO allies, "that while we would stay in the country, we might want to rotate out of Kandahar," Harper replied: "I don't want to prejudice any decision on that."

And he went on: "We should ask about the Canadian military. Do they remain committed? Do they fell confident of success? These are questions that we will keep asking. ... Obviously, in terms of our role in that commitment, we are going to leave that open for debate in the next couple of years."

What Stephane Dion was trying to do here was unite the Liberals around a single position on an issue on which they have been badly divided. It's one thing for them to want to remove our troops from harm's way in Kandahar, which doesn't obscure the fact it was the Liberals who put them there.

But Dion got what he wanted, a party united behind his carefully nuanced position. Out of Kandahar in 2009, though not necessarily out of Afghanistan. Nobody noticed that part. Sometimes the most important words are the ones left out.

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