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Why some fools on the Hill jump at the utter insanity of yet another election

Strange times, strange country.

The seal hunters are heading out onto the ice floes just in time for National Wildlife Week.

Spring has finally reached Canada, but the hockey playoffs are in Europe.

And Parliament, which hasn't even learned to stand in the nine months since the last election, is threatening to fall.

The threat comes from Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, who could live with the federal budget last month but this month cannot.

Perhaps it is just the time of year. This Thursday, after all, marks the anniversary of the last time the Conservative Party was victorious in an election that brought an end to a minority government, when John Diefenbaker won his 208 seats back in 1958.

And Saturday is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, meaning fairy tales are in the air.

And Friday, of course, is April Fool's Day, so perhaps Harper is merely getting the jump on the rest of the fools on the Hill.

Harper's change of heart comes over Bill C-43, a money bill tied to the budget but which Harper contends is really a way for the government to sneak parts of the Kyoto agreement into law without having to bring specific environmental legislation before the House.

Newfoundland member of Parliament Loyola Hearn has even called the bill "the most conniving, underhanded, low-down piece of legislation since I've been around politics" -- and Hearn isn't even thinking Kyoto. His anger has to do with his province's new offshore deal on resources being tied to C-43, a deal that would be put on hold if the government were to fall.

The truly surprising development, however, comes from the Bloc Québécois. After taking 54 seats in last June's fumbled election, they had been expected to support the Liberal minority for eternity and beyond on the grounds that never again in history would the Bloc have so much clout in Parliament.

And yet now leader Gilles Duceppe, who has always supported the Kyoto agreement, is also talking about voting against this bill -- because it doesn't go far "enough."

The more likely reason, however, is that Duceppe suddenly sees the possibility of even more seats -- something that would have been unimaginable last June even as the celebration champagne was kicking in.

Together, the Bloc and Conservatives hold 154 of the 308 seats. The New Democrats, with only 19 seats, are all for the Kyoto accord, but not at all for the federal budget -- meaning anything is possible. Even the utter insanity of an election less than a year after the Liberals won a 133-seat minority that many said was most welcome.

Minority governments, you see, hold somewhat mythical status in Canada.

The most productive Ottawa years in memory are said to be the 1960s, when Lester Pearson could never quite win a majority but, under pressure from the NDP, delivered most of today's social programs. Pierre Trudeau's best years are often said to be 1972-74, his only minority.

Much was expected of the current minority, including public interest, yet after nine months it has proved such a flaccid production that we are reminded of poet Frank Scott's condemnation of Mackenzie King: "Let us raise up a temple,/ To the cult of mediocrity,/ Do nothing by halves/ Which can be done by quarters."

In fact, the palpitations of the moment come far more from the ongoing Gomery commission than from any bill on the floor of the House of Commons. One can only wonder what the political mood would be now if only Mr. Justice John Gomery had held his inquiry in reverse -- beginning in Montreal and then moving to Ottawa.

There was a point, when questions were still being avoided in Ottawa, that doubts were raised over the value of this whole thing, apart from a few amusing distractions concerning bad ties and golf balls.

That has all dramatically changed with the testimony from Montreal, where interest in Quebec is now said to be at the level of the O. J. Simpson trial, and where some are hinting the worst is still to come.

The backlash arising from Gomery -- remember that it was called to "distance" the current Liberal government from the immediate past Liberal government -- has been critical in placing politicians dead last, at barely 16 per cent, in a recent survey of trusted professions.

Other polls continue to show the Liberals higher than all other parties, yet Prime Minister Paul Martin's Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre, says, "This is no time to go to the polls."

Another senior Liberal politician was privately predicting the other day when the Liberals will lose the next election, no matter when it is held.

No wonder the government is anxious to avoid one; no wonder most of the opposition is suddenly itching for one.

And perhaps the people, entering the first spring in living memory where the news will take precedence over hockey, might even welcome one.

After all, sports fans have long known it's much more fun to boo than to cheer.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

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