Dion can't see his way down the field

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National Post, Friday, March 14, 2008

It's a fundamental tenet of the Westminster tradition that, on budget matters, the government proposes and the House disposes.

Thus, when the federal budget passed last week, that would, or should, have been the end of it.

Except that, in this minority House, the opposition parties subsequently united to adopt a private member's bill to make Registered Education Savings Plans tax deductible at an initial cost to the federal treasury of nearly $1-billion a year.

Not so fast, said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. In bringing in his implementing legislation for the budget, he added a poison pill "to protect the government's fiscal plan from the effects" of Liberal Dan Mc-Teague's RESP bill.

In other words, Mr. Dion, put up or shut up.

Stephane Dion's answer was not long in coming. "Not this week," he said after the Liberal caucus on Wednesday. The Liberals would choose the moment to pull "the trigger" on the Conservatives, but not before the two-week Easter recess that begins today, and certainly not before four byelections next Monday, in which the Liberals should easily retain three Toronto and Vancouver seats.

Once again, Dion got himself into a situation where, for all his bluster about defeating the government, he had to keep his members out of the House at crunch time.

This is yet another three and out sequence for the Liberals. Once again, their quarterback is simply unable to see his way down the field.

How did this happen, yet again? Private member's bills are normally about naming mountains in national parks. Memorably, a young Liberal backbencher named Jean Chretien once proposed that Trans-Canada Airlines be renamed Air Canada. But a private member's bill touching the "fisc" is simply unheard of.

McTeague's bill should have been ruled inadmissible by the Speaker in the first place. The fiscal framework is the preserve of the finance minister, and any private member's bill that touches it should be ruled out of order. Speaker Peter Milliken evidently allowed it because it didn't involve spending money. But as a tax deduction for parents, it would initially cost Ottawa $900-million, and perhaps up to $2-billion down the road, according to by Don Dummond, chief economist of TD Bank.

Given that the surplus is shrinking to the point of disappearing, the Conservatives howled that McTeague's bill could tip the fiscal framework back into deficit, after a decade-long virtuous cycle of balanced budgets, surpluses and paying down the federal debt.

Leaving aside the principle of money bills being the preserve of the government, the Conservatives clearly saw an opportunity to call the Liberals' bluff by adding a poison pill to the budget ways and means motion. The Tories could have let it drag on in the Liberal-dominated Senate, urging Dion to get his members to defeat it in the Red Chamber.

Instead, the Conservatives quickly brought it back to the House. When Dion endorsed McTeague's bill last week, didn't anyone suggest that it could come back to bite him? Having talked it up, he would have only two choices -- either defeat the ways motion and topple the government, or walk away from a crisis precipitated by his own party. Again.

We're beginning to lose count of the number of occasions on which Dion has threatened to defeat the government, only to fold like a cheap suit.

First there was the Throne Speech last October. No government has ever fallen on a Speech from the Throne, but Dion threatened to defeat it, and then didn't.

Then there was the budget, when Dion presented a too-cute-by-half amendment citing NDP-style spending by the Conservatives, with barely a handful of Liberals showing up to vote on their own motion

Then there was Afghanistan, and Dion's line in the sand that Canada's "combat role" must end by 2009. Yesterday, the Liberals joined the Conservatives in a motion to extend the mission to 2011.

Finally, in another vote yesterday, the Liberals allowed McTeague's RESP bill to be killed off by Flaherty's poison pill.

Just another Groundhog Day at the office for Dion.

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