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The madness stops as all sides back off

OTTAWA

one had to blink. Everyone blinked. And believe it or not, the result could well lead to the transformation of Canada's Parliament.

As the minutes ticked down to the first vote on the Throne Speech yesterday, the Liberal government faced possible defeat, its fate in the hands of independent MP Chuck Cadman and Liberal MP Lawrence O'Brien, who struggled to make it to the House despite being very ill.

The Conservatives faced a crisis of their own. Two of their MPs, Brian Pallister and John Cummins, had left, depriving the Conservatives of the numbers they needed to win the vote. The Bloc Québécois, which had put forward the amendment to be voted on, found itself the author of a resolution that could result in a general election.

As the vote approached, Tory MPs milled about in the halls outside the Commons, some of them giddy with the anticipation of possibly forming a government, others deeply worried about the consequences of this political machismo. Behind the scenes, strategists huddled, party leaders talked with premiers -- New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, in particular, was alarmed that Conservatives were consorting with the Bloc -- while people stared aghast at the prospect of the government's defeat.

Fortunately, our political leaders are not entirely mad. Late yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Paul Martin got on the phone to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who called Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, and the three leaders met in the Prime Minister's office.

The Bloc agreed to water down its amendment, in exchange for which the Liberals agreed to support the Bloc amendment. At 6:15, the amended motion passed the House unanimously.

So what are we left with? Probably, a move to proportional representation.

With luck, this near-death experience has frightened some sense into all three parties, who must now work out a compromise to deal with the Conservative amendments to the Throne Speech, which come up the week after next.

One of those amendments would mandate a citizens assembly to consider changing the electoral system to one of proportional representation, rather than the existing first-past-the-post system. Five provinces are in various stages of considering the same change.

To get the opposition parties to compromise on other points, the Liberals will probably have to agree to the citizens assembly, setting in motion a chain of events that could well lead to minority and coalition governments in perpetuity.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In the short term, who is most to blame for this near-death experience?

The Liberals bear much of the responsibility. Had they been open to genuine negotiations with the opposition parties in advance, they could have incorporated some of their amendments into the Throne Speech in exchange for their support. Instead, they acted like the majority government they aren't, infuriating the opposition and almost bringing about their own defeat. Now, the Liberals will have to be more openly conciliatory in placating opposition demands. It will be harder for them to keep control of the agenda. Still, Mr. Martin did negotiate his way out of a possible catastrophe, as he did during the health summit. He's getting good at this.

The Conservatives are also licking wounds tonight. A number of Mr. Harper's MPs were concerned about his willingness to go to the very brink in his efforts to humiliate the Liberals. Had the government fallen, he would have borne most of the blame. On the other hand, Mr. Harper now can expect to see at least some of his own proposed amendments to the Throne Speech accepted by the governing party. That's an impressive feat for an opposition leader. But Lord, he almost paid a very high price.

The Bloc can take credit for pushing through an amendment to the Throne Speech that speaks to Quebec's complaints of a fiscal imbalance between the federal spending power and provincial spending responsibilities. Had they not compromised on the wording of that amendment, however, they would have borne immediate responsibility for defeating the federal government, which would have required some explaining in Quebec.

The one unequivocal winner was Jack Layton of the NDP. Up until last week, all three opposition parties were determined to force the Liberals to pay greater attention to their demands, and to give them greater powers within the House and its committees.

But Mr. Layton decided that Mr. Duceppe was willing to defeat the government rather than surrender on the Bloc amendment. The NDP Leader decided to switch his party's support to the Liberals. He, of all political leaders, is the one who demonstrably acted to preserve the Parliament, rather than play political chicken. And now he'll get his beloved citizens assembly on electoral reform. Not bad for a leader in his first week in the House.

But let's not understate what happened here. For about 24 hours, the government hung on a knife edge, within one or two votes of defeat, its fate dependent on chemotherapy treatments, flights arriving on time, people not getting stuck in elevators. The Liberals came close to losing power.

Pray nothing like that happens again, any time soon. Nobody in this country is ready for another election.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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