Paul Martin's Quebec lieutenant warned yesterday that a spring election would be a threat to the Liberals given the daily damage being done to the government at the Gomery inquiry.
"Obviously, I wouldn't want to go to the polls at this time," Transport Minister Jean Lapierre said on CTV's Question Period yesterday. "This is no time to go to the polls, when you're in the middle of this."
Mr. Lapierre made his comments after Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said Thursday that a Kyoto environmental provision in the government's budget implementation bill is tantamount to a carbon tax and that the Tories would oppose it. Spending items are considered confidence motions and a loss would bring down the government.
Mr. Lapierre noted that the choice of whether to go to the polls may not be the Liberal government's to make.
"We're in a minority situation. We're not the ones pulling the plug, necessarily," he said.
Asked if the party would lose seats in the next election because of Mr. Justice John Gomery's probe into the sponsorship scandal, Mr. Lapierre said it was too early to say.
"Let's wait until after it's all done," he said. "It's nobody in this government. I had nothing to do with that. The Prime Minister had nothing to do with that and I think [people] will realize that maybe it was the practice of the past."
But he said the televised Gomery inquiry is harming the party significantly in Quebec. The probe moved to Montreal from Ottawa a few weeks ago, and has garnered substantial television ratings since then.
"I told everybody months ago it was going to become a soap opera," he said. "It's going to be a rough ride. This is not a very great moment to be in federal politics because, you know, people are judging us with a lot of cynicism and I can understand them."
Mr. Lapierre said he hasn't seen current polls on the political environment, but believes they probably reflect voting intentions similar to election day last June.
"We would probably be in exactly the same spot."
Conservative MP Jason Kenney told Question Period the Liberals have sneaked in a significant change to the original budget.
The provision would declare carbon-dioxide emissions as toxic, he said, and "this opens the door to massive, multibillion-dollar carbon taxes that we believe would be very destructive of jobs and the economy."
The Tories recently abstained from voting on the budget, but found themselves on the end of significant criticism from party members for the position they took. Senior Tory MPs have said they will review that strategy.
It's unclear how the Bloc Québécois would vote on the environmental provision.
Although it supports Kyoto, the Bloc could stand to profit from an early election, because of the difficulty the inquiry is causing Liberals in Quebec. Together, the Bloc and the Conservatives represent 154 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals (133) and the New Democrats (19) represent 152 and there are two independents.
Mr. Kenney said yesterday his party has "bent over backward" to make this Parliament work, adding that Prime Minister Paul Martin can avoid potential defeat by declaring that the matter is not one of confidence.
Some backroom observers have suggested the Liberals may not be opposed to an election as first thought, given that the report from the Gomery commission could be devastating when it emerges, probably next fall.
Liberal Senator Jim Munson, who appeared on Question Period with Mr. Kenney, said he is a strong supporter of Kyoto and wouldn't mind being taxed if it means helping the environment.
"When it comes to the Kyoto plan, however it works itself out, if you want to tax me today for the future, go ahead and tax me."
The implementation bill must still pass a number of hurdles before it becomes law. Liberal House Leader Tony Valeri says he hopes to have it passed by the end of the spring.
The sponsorship hearings resume tomorrow.