sition Leader Stephen Harper threw down the gauntlet to the Liberals yesterday, saying a controversial environmental provision must be removed from a budget implementation bill or the country will go to the polls.
If the Liberals are willing to let the minority government fall over a move to bring greenhouse gas emissions under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, something the Conservatives say would amount to a carbon tax, "well, then, we'll have an election," Mr. Harper said.
"We make our decisions here based on what we think is in the best interest of the country, but obviously I've said the country is ready for an election at any time."
The provision was included in the omnibus budget implementation bill introduced in the House of Commons yesterday after what sources described as heated debate within the Liberal cabinet over whether it is a good time to test Conservative resolve. Mr. Harper and the rest of his caucus are enjoying renewed confidence after a successful policy convention last weekend.
The fact that the Liberals were willing to take the gamble knowing that the Conservatives would oppose the confidence bill -- and knowing that the Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats have said they would vote against the legislation -- had some backroom observers suggesting that the Liberals were engineering their own defeat.
They speculated that Prime Minister Paul Martin, who ignored all questions on the issue after a cabinet meeting yesterday, would rather have an election soon on an environmental matter than wait for a potentially devastating report that could come next fall from the Gomery commission reviewing the sponsorship scandal.
Environment Minister Stéphane Dion, who pushed to have changes to the CEPA included in the budget bill, was certainly not willing to back down in the face of Mr. Harper's opposition. "I don't want to go in an election," he said.
"But if, one day I have to go to an election and say to Canadians 'Don't you think Canada should do its share for climate change?' and, 'Don't you think Canada should do its share for Kyoto?' obviously I would be very pleased to do that because I know Canadians, in a very large part, disagree with the Conservative Party about that."
The mammoth bill introduced in the House of Commons yesterday must go through second and third reading and be debated at a parliamentary committee before it can become law. Liberal House Leader Tony Valeri said he hopes to have it passed by the end of the spring.
It could be amended to remove the offending provision before it is put to a final vote.
The bill contains a wide range of measures, including equalization payments for eastern provinces, an extension of the jurisdiction of the auditor-general to examine foundations receiving federal funds, and $100-million to halt the spread of the pine beetle in British Columbia and Alberta.
Some of the items, particularly those related to tax cuts and bestowing increased powers on the auditor-general, are proposals for which the Conservatives have lobbied. But the CEPA provision wasn't mentioned in the budget released last month that the Conservatives said they would not defeat, Mr. Harper said.
"We will not be intimidated into supporting a provision that is so dangerous," he said. "This is an attempt to get unlimited power to declare any element of the Kyoto plan to affect any industry to impose multimillion-dollar fines on any basis without any parliamentary approval or discussion whatsoever and it is completely unacceptable."
Mr. Dion disagreed with the assertion that the change was not contained in the budget. Climate change was a large part of that budget and, in order to control climate change and meet Canada's obligations under the Kyoto accord, there needs to be a regulatory tool, he said. "That's what CEPA is giving to Canada."
Some Liberals said yesterday that a deal would be struck to end the standoff, but it was unclear whether that meant they would back down and take the clause out of the bill, or whether they believed the Conservatives could be forced to compromise.
In the meantime, NDP Leader Jack Layton accused the government of playing games with the environment.
"Canadians don't particularly want an election," he said. "Canadians want us to get down to getting the work done. We're prepared to do that, but when we see this kind of game playing with budgets, it makes it very difficult."
But Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said he was not afraid of an election because he would have no problem explaining his position to Quebeckers. Mr. Duceppe is not satisfied with a number of provisions in the bill, including the portion on the CEPA.
"First of all it's not enough on Kyoto. We don't know the plan, we didn't discuss the plan first of all. Secondly, I mean there's nothing on employment insurance, there's nothing on the fiscal imbalance," Mr. Duceppe said. "I'm ready to have an election any time if this is what they want," he said.