Liberals put focus onto Tory ethics

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Sun Media, Friday, March 11, 2011

Welcome to Canada's new reality show, Parliamentary Procedure. Instead of being voted off the island, the Conservatives could be voted out of the House.

Instead of Donald Trump telling people they're fired, we have Speaker Peter Milliken ruling that the government breached the privileges of Parliament on two occasions -- first when it withheld budget documents from the House Finance Committee, then when International Development Minister Bev Oda changed her story on who wrote or ordered the word "not" into a decision not to renew funding for a church group's good works overseas.

This is what passes for high drama on Parliament Hill. Like most reality shows, it is totally disconnected from the reality of people's lives.

As a result of the speaker's ruling, the Liberals were able to kick the two files over to the House Affairs Committee, which will hold hearings with the House out next week during Ontario spring break.

The committee has to report back to the House when it resumes Mar. 21, the day before the budget. And if the committee finds the government in contempt of Parliament, the Liberals will move a non-confidence motion.

While there wouldn't be a vote the same day, it would certainly frame the new Liberal narrative on trust, and pre-empt the budget. Of course, nothing prevents Finance Minister Jim Flaherty from moving his budget up a day, to Mar. 21.

If there's going to be an election, the Conservatives would rather campaign on the budget and the economy, where they have a huge comparative advantage over the Liberals. For their part, the Liberals are intent on forcing an election over trust and transparency in government. In Stephen Harper's Canada, they say, the hidden agenda has given way to a systematic abuse of power. Democracy itself is at stake. A decent government would immediately comply with the speaker's rulings, Michael Ignatieff thundered in Question Period on Thursday, "but this is not a decent government," adding: "The game is up."

To which Government House Leader John Baird replied, the whole tempest was "a Liberal distraction" and "we're gonna stay focused on jobs and the economy."

None of this is fundamental to voters in their lives, but it is fun for the Liberals, who have been able to change the channel from the economy to ethics. They've had help from the Conservatives, with a series of unforced turnovers on everything from Oda changing her story to the in-and-out scheme, not to mention the re-branding of the government of Canada as the Harper government.

Why, you've never seen such corruption and abuses of power, at least not since the Liberal sponsorship scandal and the firing of the president of the Business Development Bank for refusing to call a loan on a hotel in which the prime minister of the day had an interest.

A little perspective can go a long way. But perspective is notably absent from the House, as its discourse has reached toxic levels. In a low moment for civility, Ignatieff even tried to drag Harper's new chief of staff, Nigel Wright, into the in-and-out thing -- uttering statements that, if repeated outside the House, would get him sued down to his socks.

That is a standard of decency which Ignatieff, in a desperate grasp for power, has now abandoned.

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