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Caught between a blink and a general election

'A public bill which was not referred to committee before second reading may not be amended before being read a second time."

And that's the problem.

Liberal Party insiders seem pretty confident that the sudden political crisis over their budget-implementation bill will dissipate before it comes to a vote in two or three weeks.

After all, the Conservatives would be taking an enormous gamble by forcing a general election less than a year after the last one.

Nonetheless, Stephen Harper's rhetoric has been more bullish than anything we have seen from him recently. Unless the bill's offensive provisions are removed, he says, his party is prepared to vote against it. This time, party strategists warn, there will be no mass abstentions or clever bouts of diplomatic flu.

The NDP is already opposed to the budget-implementation bill because it's not progressive enough for their taste and because the party feels it has been relegated to the sidelines and needs to get back in the game.

The Bloc Québécois is opposed to the bill because it is not all about Quebec, and because the Bloc is confident that an election in the midst of the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal would deliver even more seats to its cause.

So if the Conservatives are really serious about voting against this bill, the government could fall. Except it won't, because the Conservatives don't really want an election, any more than the Liberals do. And that is the paradox that has everyone in Ottawa wandering around scratching their heads and wondering how the party leaders plan to get themselves out of this one.

There would be delicious irony if Canada's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming brought down the Paul Martin government. The Prime Minister was never much of a Kyoto fan, but Jean Chrétien committed Canada to it, and so this government must find a way to implement the thing.

The proposed solution is to include a measure in the budget-implementation bill that would allow the federal government to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. When the Conservatives saw this provision, they went ballistic, saying it would amount to a tax on carbon.

Because the Conservatives are anti-taxes, because they were embarrassed by Mr. Harper's initial support for the budget, and because they had a good policy convention and are feeling frisky, they have vowed to vote against the budget-implementation bill, unless the Kyoto provisions are taken out.

And to repeat, that's the problem. As the quote above, taken from House of Commons Procedures and Practice demonstrates, the Liberals cannot amend their budget implementation bill, by taking out the offending provisions, before it comes to a vote on second reading.

The Tories could support the bill on second reading, then try to get the Kyoto clauses deleted when it goes to committee, but that would be backing down; to approve a bill on second reading is to approve it in principle.

The Liberals, on the other hand, have only two options: take their chances with the second-reading vote, or withdraw the bill entirely, which would be humiliating.

And what would happen if all parties decided to roll the dice and force an election? That would be enormously dangerous for everyone involved. The voters would be furious with the opposition parties, and would want to punish them. The Tories would be doubly damned, for bringing down the government over a measure designed to protect the environment.

But the Liberals would be in trouble as well. The Gomery inquiry has transfixed Quebeckers, who would be inclined to punish the governing party even further for abusing their dollars and their trust.

In the rest of the country, someone would be bound to point out that the Liberals actually haven't done anything on Kyoto at all -- even the budget-implementation bill only clears the way for future action, which may or may not occur, a tactic that has been condemned by a consortium of environmental groups as unnecessary and divisive.

In truth, the Liberals haven't accomplished much of anything on anything in the past year: Waiting lists for joint replacements aren't shorter; there is no agreement with the provinces on a child-care program; the aboriginal agenda remains only an agenda; not one extra soldier has been hired or one pair of boots purchased. Everything has been announced; nothing has been implemented. Nothing, the voters might conclude, ever will be.

An election would be a crapshoot, with all parties hoping to escape the voters' wrath and with no one able to predict the defining issues of the campaign.

Which is why it's sensible to bet that someone will blink between now and the second-reading vote. The difficulty at the moment is figuring out who and how.

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