Tuesday, May 17, 2005

 

Jack Layton Will Decide the Liberals' Fate...(and maybe his own, too..)

The 'budget' Bill C-43, is not really a budget per se because any numbers it contains are guesstimates that are one step removed from fiction. In practical terms the Federal budget is almost an anacronism; it's only really important as an indicator of the government's stated intentions and priorities. In a procedural sense, it is a key bill, because it's the only one that must be passed in order for the House of Commons to be prorogued. The real significance of the budget is all the other legislation that the government has 'attached' to it and which will also be passed into law unless the whole thing is defeated (the infamous non-confidence vote). There will also be a second 'budget' Bill C-48 - the NDP amendment to the original budget which will be voted on separately. Either of these votes could defeat the government but that is an exceedingly unlikely scenario now that the Conservatives have promised their support.
However, the real excitement is most likely to occur about 30 seconds after the budget Bills are passed, when the Liberals will move for an adjournment. If they win the move for an adjournment, that will be it for the first session of the 38th Parliament, because then PMPM will prorogue the House for the summer, causing all unfinished business to be null and void - no opposition days, no confidence votes, no nothing. (Keep in mind that everything the gov't really wanted to get thru the house has either already been passed or will be passed by virtue of being attached to the Budget - so now the Liberals have every reason to get out as quickly as they can.)
Anyway, the moment of truth will be the motion to adjourn. The NDP said they will vote for the budget because they want the people of Canada to get the benefit of the goodies that the were able to extort from the Liberals. But they didn't make any promises beyond the budget. If they also vote for the motion to adjourn (which is the procedural step needed to prorogue Parliament), they will be exposing themselves to intense criticism for allowing the Liberals to close down Parliament until the Fall (the so-called Summer Recess). If Layton is a man of his word, he will prevent the Liberals from escaping judgment and force them to keep Parliament in session by voting against the motion to adjourn (along with the rest of the opposition). In that case there likely will be an 'opposition day' on May 19 or whenever at which time all opposition MPs will be able to show their real opinion of the Liberals without the fear of constituent backlash. A successful vote of non-confidence is far more likely to succeed at that time.
It's not out of the question that following the Budget votes, we could see the House of Commons sitting into the night as the Liberals try repeatedly to adjourn and the combined opposition withholding their consent; the object being to wear the Liberals down until they agree to officially schedule an opposition day. It's also possible that the Liberals will readily agree to an opposition day, but look for them to rationalize their way out of it as that would be almost certain political suicide.
A bizarre scenario that could occur during the main budget vote (C-43) is one that sees the Conservatives supporting the Liberals against the combined forces of the NDP and Bloc. This would make it very difficult for the Liberals to campaign on the basis of Conservative intransigence in the House. An equally bizarre scenario would have the Bloc voting against the main budget but supporting the Layton budget (C-48) because it is more attractive to Bloc voters who may be disappointed if the Bloc doesn't support that motion!

Here are a couple of FAQs that are quite informative about House procedures in general and prorogation in particular.
The Parliamentary Life Cycle
What Prorogation Really Means
Note that the summary of 'The Parliamentary Cycle' includes this information about prorogation: When Parliament (already) stands prorogued to a certain day, a subsequent proclamation (or proclamations) may be issued to advance or defer the date.
Keep in mind that "the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister" is the only person (other than the Queen) who can prorogue Parliament. In theory therefore, Parliament can be (repeatedly) prorogued for up to 364 days. (Parliament must sit "at least 1 day a year and an election must be held at least once every 5 years".) Apart from that token legal requirement, the Prime Minister and his party can do pretty much what they like for up to 5 years. That's democracy Canadian style! The reason it has always worked is that governments have respected, albeit grudgingly at times, the traditions of parliamentary democracy.

Addendum: Although the Conservatives are making noises about voting against the Layton budget (Bill C-48) rather than the main budget, the numbers just don't seem to be in their favour. It would also be very bad PR in the face of Ed Broadbent's largesse on the au pair arrangement.
Memo to David Kilgour: The African Gambit is dead in the water 'cause they just don't need you any more. Just like Belinda doesn't need Peter any more. Too bad. So sad.
Note to Jack: You need Ed Broadbent more than he needs you.....

May 20 - Update:



Obviously, my prediction about the adjournment motion was totally wrong. Nevertheless, I still can't find anything in the Parliamentary Rules and Procedures on adjournment and prorogation that ensures something similar to the scenario I suggested couldn't be used to prevent non-confidence votes from occurring. When I learn more about this, I'll add it to this post. But I remain convinced that the Libranos have more cards to play, should they need them. If someone can supply the missing pieces, please let me know.

'Fine tuning' of my adjournment theory: One part of the puzzle naturally enough is that the budget needs to get 3rd reading. This is pretty much a rubber-stamp process with a majority government whereas the real debate occurs prior to second reading and/or in the Senate after 3rd reading. I frankly didn't think of the third reading as being important because it's only in a minority situation where third reading is meaningful.
Also, the budget has to pass the Senate but that's a foregone conclusion because the Liberals have a huge majority there. (They have also allowed more empty seats to accumulate in the Senate than at any time in at least the past 20 years - whatever that may mean.)
As I should have realized, Parliament refers jointly to the Senate and the House of Commons. Prorogation is spoken of with respect to Parliament so the Budget has to be passed by both branches AND both branches must also have adjourned; only then can the Prime Minister 'recommend' to the Governor General that Parliament be prorogued. BUT, the Senate can sit to pass the Budget AFTER the House of Commons has been adjourned; so once adjournment of the House of COmmons has occurred, everything else that may happen subsequently is controlled by the Prime Minister. Therefore, the motion to adjourn the Houseof Commons after third reading of the Budget seems likely to be the moment of truth.

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