Martin's Minority Government in Peril

THE FIRST SHUDDER of snap-election fever had barely rippled through Ottawa before tacticians in all parties started whispering it wasn't, couldn't be - come on now, let's be serious - the real thing. The fall of a minority, they reasoned, is supposed to be based on a solid calculation.

Martin's Minority Government in Peril

THE FIRST SHUDDER of snap-election fever had barely rippled through Ottawa before tacticians in all parties started whispering it wasn't, couldn't be - come on now, let's be serious - the real thing. The fall of a minority, they reasoned, is supposed to be based on a solid calculation. Either the government or opposition parties capable of defeating it see advantage in the opinion polls, or sense that a particular concern is worth going to the voters over. But recent polls haven't been uplifting for either Liberals or Conservatives. And the issue that first set off election speculation - a Kyoto policy provision in the government's omnibus budget legislation - doesn't exactly lend itself to stump speeches and campaign ads. "All this election talk," said pollster Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates, "is either utterly disingenuous, or it's mad."

Or perhaps a little of both. First the disingenuous part: Stephen HARPER threatens to force an election over the Kyoto measure, which seems highly unlikely since he has left no doubt recently that Conservatives want the next campaign to be fought over the sponsorship affair and Liberal ethics. But then there's the madness part. Harper was accused of being wimpy when he quickly agreed to pass the Liberal budget after it was first tabled, Paul MARTIN is struggling to overcome a reputation for chronic dithering - and two wounded alpha males out to prove their toughness are liable to act a little crazy. With neither in any shape to recklessly plunge into a campaign, though, the stage seemed set for a few weeks of delicate parliamentary gamesmanship over the budget bill, all aimed at avoiding an election while saving face.

Yet new developments that could make a spring campaign a real possibility are emerging at Justice John Gomery's sponsorship inquiry. Testimony given last week at the hearings in Montreal was considered explosive enough that some observers predicted the Tories and Bloc Québécois would consider defeating the government, and try to make Liberal corruption the ballot question. The details cannot be revealed under a publication ban, imposed by Gomery because the witness faces fraud charges, and media attention on what he told the inquiry might make it harder for him to get a fair trial. Exactly when Gomery will lift that ban, partially or entirely, is likely to become clearer this week - and could be the key factor in the opposition parties' election deliberations.

Unlike the budget bill fracas, dirt dug up by Gomery might be enough to make Harper want to hit the hustings. His tough talk on Kyoto was a matter of shoring up his base, not expanding it. The Liberals have included an amendment to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in their budget legislation. CEPA now regulates toxic substances, but the change would let the act control anything deemed harmful. That would allow Ottawa to use it to enforce Canada's Kyoto treaty commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide from industries that burn fossil fuels. Any move that could give teeth to the Kyoto paper tiger is anathema to the oil patch - and therefore to Harper's Alberta home territory. He needed to send a signal that he hadn't forgotten where he comes from.

But the sponsorship affair offers him hope of growing beyond Conservative strongholds. While the Bloc is clearly the main beneficiary of disgust over the scandal in Quebec, the Conservatives might pick up seats in Ontario if new Gomery revelations revived the anti-Liberal sentiment that swept the province early in last spring's election. Gomery's scheduled fall release of his key findings was thought to be the earliest point when public outrage might rise again to levels where the Tories would want to risk going to the polls. Now, Harper advisers are ever-so-cautiously considering the possibility that sensational testimony might be enough to run on this spring. Harper's main speech at his party's recent policy convention in Montreal showed how he would try to link Jean CHRÉTIEN's scandals to Martin's alleged ethical lapses. "It's been 12 very good years, if you own a hotel in Shawinigan," he said. "Very good years, if you are an advertising company that makes the right political donations. Very good years, if your steamship line can find a tax haven in Barbados."

No doubt that's election-ready rhetoric. But serious questions remain unanswered about a Conservative campaign strategy. The first is whether the party can succeed in persuading voters that Martin deserves to pay the price for skulduggery that dates back to the Chrétien regime. Voters might decide Martin has suffered enough, whacked down from a near-certain majority to a humbling minority in last June's vote, almost entirely as a result of sponsorship fallout. Graves doubts the inquiry's findings will prompt another big swing in public opinion. "There's no party in any position to have an obvious upside," the pollster says. "Everybody could go through an election and leave us more or less where we are today." Even some Tories are wary of putting too much emphasis on sins of the Liberal past. "By no means can a serious party base its electoral strategy merely on the dents in the armour of the other party," says Conservative MP James Moore. "We have to remind Canadians how we would make the country better."

The combination of the latest Gomery inquiry testimony and the budget bill squabbling could destabilize Parliament and make the government's fall more likely. Much depends on the behind-the-scenes bargaining among the various parties' House leaders. Last fall, they seemed to be co-operating smoothly. But relations among them have recently soured. Liberals claim the Conservatives double-crossed them by voting with the Bloc to defeat a government bill to split Foreign Affairs and International Trade into two departments. And the BQ feigned that its MPs might vote to defeat the government in February over the budget, only to pull back at the last moment - apparently just to cost Liberals a night's sleep. Deepening mutual suspicion among the parties makes the House more entertaining, or draining, depending on one's perspective.

Liberals are betting any fresh details on Chrétien-era malfeasance won't stick to Martin. They want to negotiate around the Kyoto fuss, take the summer to regroup, and pray the fizz starts to go out of the sponsorship story. That's what they hope. What they fear is another matter. Around Parliament Hill, suddenly, nobody is taking anything for granted.

Maclean's April 11, 2005