Vote on Throne Speech will be test for Tories

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 5, 2007

It's official: Oct. 16 is the day of the Throne Speech, beginning a new session of the minority Parliament.

In setting the date for the new session late yesterday, Stephen Harper prorogued the first session, and with it all pending government bills, including the Clean Air Act, died on the order paper. Private members' bills get to live on in the new session.

The House, currently in summer recess, had been scheduled to resume in less than two weeks on Sept. 17. In delaying an extra month, Harper not only gets to set a new agenda, he gets a month without question period, a significant incentive in itself. His recently shuffled ministers, particularly Peter MacKay and Maxime Bernier at defence and foreign affairs, will have another month to bone up on Afghanistan and other top files, without being exposed to the drive-by shootings in the House, a place where a cabinet minister is never more than a single sentence away from oblivion.

Moreover, the Ontario election campaign will now unfold on its own merits, without the Conservative government or Harper being an issue, depriving the Ontario Liberals of the opportunity to depict him as the reincarnation of Mike Harris. Thus, the date for the speech From the Throne, not only after Thanksgiving on Oct. 8, but after the Ontario election on Oct. 10.

There is some grumbling in opposition ranks, particularly the NDP, that the House won't be resuming as previously scheduled. But that's just rhetoric and default positioning. After a year and a half, this Parliament has already outlasted the life of the average minority House. In other words, most observers expected an election by now. Even in a majority House, the average life of a parliamentary session is 18 months to two years, and this Parliament is on that threshold.

The benefits to Harper and the Conservatives are obvious - they get to set a new agenda, with a new message, one they'll be very happy to go into an election with, whenever that they may.

The most likely election date now seems to be October 2009, the date set in the fixed-election legislation adopted in the first session. But it could also come after next winter's budget, or even next month after the vote on the Throne Speech.

Throne Speeches come with benefits for sitting governments, but in minority Houses the vote on Throne Speech is no mere formality, but a real as opposed to ceremonial question of confidence.

For weeks now, the opposition parties, particularly the Bloc Québécois, have been sending signals about the price of doing business with them.

The Bloc, having propped up the Conservatives through one Throne Speech and two budgets, are now saying its support can no longer be taken for granted.

Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe wants to see at least two things in the speech - commitment to end our deployment in Kandahar as scheduled in February 2009, and limitations to the federal spending power.

Chances are good Duceppe will see both in the Throne Speech, and that should be enough to keep him onside. The Conservatives find Duceppe a very reliable guy to do business with - he has a definable bottom line, and he always delivers.

Jack Layton, who has a mathematical balance of power if he wants to use it, tends to be a bit more skittish when it comes to dealing with the Tories. It's hard to find his bottom line, and he understandably has problems in his caucus delivering a party of the left to a government on the right. His position going in is that that the old session should have continued. Now he needs new lines. Somehow, the NDP strategists have to do a better job of thinking their way down the field.

As for Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, it's hard to know what he thinks about anything from one week to the next. He wants the mission in Afghanistan ended in 2009, but then he says he wouldn't bring the government down over it. He wants a clear decision on this matter, but when he gets one, as he did from MacKay this week, he accuses the government of a hidden agenda. "How will they vote on their own vote?" he asked this week. "Why don't they say that today?" Huh?

Here's the most likely deal on Afghanistan: notice in the Throne Speech that we will fulfill our commitment to February 2009, but afterward rotate out of Kandahar, while remaining in the country. By then, in the name of burden sharing, it will be the turn of others to take the relief.

Dion wants a debate and a vote of his own on an opposition day, but before that, he'll have to decide how to vote on the Throne Speech. Welcome to the NHL.

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