Chuck Guité and -- more important -- Michel Béliveau have taken scissors to the frayed threads holding together Paul Martin's government, intensifying the one question that increasingly dominates this overheated capital: Why not get this over with?
For the past three days, the Liberal government has been filibustering in the House of Commons -- yes, the Liberals -- filling the legislative clock with meaningless procedures.
They have been doing this to keep the Conservative and Bloc Québécois from forcing a vote of no-confidence in the government, and to delay a vote on the implementation of the budget, both of which they might lose, forcing an election. In consequence, Parliament is paralyzed. The House agreed last night to send the same-sex marriage legislation to a committee for study, but the chances of that bill ever emerging from this constipated Legislature are exceedingly remote.
And Mr. Béliveau and Mr. Guité have each delivered fresh ammunition to opposition critics.
Mr. Guité's allegation that Mr. Martin intervened as finance minister to protect an advertising contract is exactly the sort of easy, cheesy allegation the Conservatives love. The fact that it is unsubstantiated, based on third-hand information, and categorically denied by Mr. Martin, means nothing. Any time the words "Paul Martin" and "advertising contracts" appear in the same sentence, Liberal fortunes suffer.
Mr. Béliveau's expected testimony, which The Globe's Daniel Leblanc has (once again) unearthed, is actually far more damning for the Liberals, if not for Mr. Martin personally. The senior Liberal organizer, who is scheduled to appear at the inquiry today, is expected to corroborate previous allegations that hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally flowed into the coffers of Liberal election campaigns, allegedly orchestrated by Jean Chrétien's close friend, Jacques Corriveau.
That's the real meat of the sponsorship mess. Kickbacks and favours from Quebec advertising firms, all of it illegal, plundered from the public treasury, intended to help Liberal fortunes in Quebec. And with every corroborating piece of testimony, the odds of it all being distorted, or at worst an isolated incident, grow slimmer. On this, at least, the Conservatives have it right: We know what Mr. Justice John Gomery is going to conclude. Most of us have already made up our minds.
The Liberals must surely be asking themselves what is the point of carrying on. The Prime Minister has gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve his government until next winter. But he can't govern. None of the legislation before the House -- on marijuana decriminalization, on limiting the powers of telemarketers, not even on the budget itself -- is going anywhere. There are only two more full weeks of sitting time left in May. The revised budget implementation bill simply must be brought forward, eventually, or the NDP will withdraw their support. But nothing else is getting done.
Some febrile Liberal strategists have even been heard to mutter about proroguing the House until after the Gomery report arrives -- in other words, for the rest of the year. Such a flagrant violation of unwritten constitutional rules would justify the intervention by the Governor-General, who would have reason to believe that her government has suspended Parliament because it no longer enjoys the confidence of the House. The story here is not that such a thing could happen, but that it could even cross anyone's mind.
Many citizens object to a premature election because of the cost to the taxpayer. But they are currently paying for a Parliament that sits every day, burning electricity, accomplishing nothing. Worse, stories are circulating throughout the capital of a bureaucracy that has ground to a halt. Managers think up busywork for employees, since any real development of policy or priorities is pointless.
In the circumstances, an election that cleared the air, one way or another, would at least unfreeze the locked cogs of the public service, and get the legislative process flowing again.
Many of us have been reluctantly predicting that a spring election is inevitable. This week, for the first time, we started thinking it might be necessary. At this point, even the Liberals should want to settle this, one way or another.