Byelections, vote coming for Ignatieff

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Sun Media, Friday, November 26, 2010

There's a perfect storm brewing and it's coming right at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff early next week.

On Monday the Liberals are expected to lose three byelections, including the fortress Grit seat of Vaughan, held by Maurizio Bevilacqua for 22 years before he resigned to run successfully for mayor of Vaughan, a city north of Toronto, last month.

On Tuesday, the House will vote on a Bloc Quebecois motion to end Canada's combat role in Afghanistan as previously scheduled, rather than re-profiling to training as agreed by the Conservatives and Liberals. In return for the Liberals' support, Stephen Harper agreed to forgo a vote in the House, but the Bloc used their opposition day on Thursday to force a debate and next Tuesday's roll call. And Iggy, having secured a free pass, stepped on a landmine when he said Monday he had no problem with a vote. His foreign affairs critic, Bob Rae, who negotiated the delicate tradeoff with the Tories, must have been beside himself.

For the Liberals, this is a very divisive issue, especially among the GTA caucus -- MPs from the Greater Toronto Area. The Quebec caucus is equally dovish on the mission. Former leader Stephane Dion went out of his way Wednesday to say the Afghans didn't need training. It was a perfectly stupid thing to say, but it sure wasn't helpful to his successor.

If Ignatieff were to allow a free vote next Tuesday, at least 20 Liberals might bolt. Which is the best reason for him to lay on a three-line whip, meaning everyone is expected to be in the House.

Except on all the available evidence, Iggy can't enforce a whipped vote. When the Liberals tried to embarrass the Conservatives on their signature maternal-health initiative last spring, by proposing that funding for abortion be included in it, more than a dozen members of their pro-life caucus voted against the motion, or stayed out of the House. Last month, on a Liberal member's motion to enforce a code of ethics on Canadian mining companies in foreign countries, Iggy and 10 of his members stayed out of the House. Still, it took seven Bloc and four NDP members from mining towns also staying out of the House to ensure its defeat.

Perhaps Iggy will have a leadership moment like Brian Mulroney on the Manitoba minority language rights debate in 1983. When Manitoba MP Dan McKenzie told the new opposition leader that he was "sorry the caucus couldn't be unanimous," Mulroney looked at him and replied: "My caucus will be unanimous." And it was.

Ignatieff may have another kind of moment Monday if, as expected, the Liberals lose Vaughan. And, by their own account, they expect to lose -- not by a little but by a lot -- to Conservative star candidate Julian Fantino, the former Ontario police commissioner. On Wednesday they were confiding to Press Gallery wretches they wouldn't be surprised to lose by as many as 10,000 votes. Talk about managing expectations. And this in a riding that Bevilacqua, who has been conspicuously absent from the campaign, won by 15 points.

In the other two byelections, both in Manitoba ridings, the Conservatives are a lock to retain rural Dauphin while the NDP should retain Winnipeg North, a Dipper stronghold won by Judy Wasylycia-Leis by 40 points. The NDP candidate, Kevin Chief, is a young aboriginal leader who has even won the endorsement of Lloyd Axworthy, the most prominent Liberal in the province.


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