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The choice: same-sex or election

Chuck Cadman and David Kilgour have the biggest political decisions of their lives to make today. They must choose whether to sustain gay marriage and a new deal for natives.

You might not have heard too much about these subjects lately. The Liberal government hangs on a knife edge over the budget and its NDP amendments.

If you support the Liberal/NDP budget -- for the fresh billions of dollars that it will devote to a national daycare program, to oil and gas royalties for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, to infrastructure funding for cities, to subsidies for postsecondary tuition, and so on -- then you should be lighting votive candles in hopes that either Mr. Cadman or Mr. Kilgour votes with the government this evening. If either of them does, the budget will probably pass and Paul Martin should remain Prime Minister at least until March.

If you oppose this budget -- because you fear it will squander the federal government's fiscal reserves on intrusive and unaffordable social programs, leaving us with a revived nanny state and a return to deficits -- then you should be praying these two MPs support the opposition, which needs both of them onside. That could force an election whose outcome can't be predicted.

But there is more to it than that, as Mr. Kilgour and Mr. Cadman well know.

Both men firmly oppose Bill C-38, the legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage across Canada. The bill is currently before a legislative committee of the House of Commons. There are 41 witnesses to be heard from, and Conservative MP Vic Toews is threatening a filibuster.

Nonetheless, the Liberals insist that the bill will be reported out of committee and receive third reading before the House rises at the end of June. (They also think an earlier column warning that the Liberals might let the bill die in committee was unduly cynical and pessimistic.) Then it would simply be a case of obtaining Senate approval. Public hearings will not be needed there, because the House has already held them, and the majority of senators support the legislation, so passage should be swift. The bill could become law a month from now, if everything goes right; at the worst, it would obtain royal assent shortly after Parliament returns in September.

If Mr. Cadman and Mr. Kilgour genuinely believe that legalizing same-sex marriage must be stopped, then they have to power to stop it, by voting the government down.

But if they vote the government down, they will also be doing great harm to the cause of improving the lives of Canada's native people.

The Martin government has been rightly criticized for delay and distraction in implementing its policies. But on the aboriginal file, haste is impossible. The government has spent a year consulting organizations representing status and non-status Indians, Métis and Inuit. They have put together a basket of proposals that could lead to important reforms in education, housing, health care and economic development. On May 31, a cabinet committee will meet aboriginal representatives (observers from the provinces will be there) to agree on specific proposals, which are then to be ratified at a first ministers meeting in the fall. But this tortuous process would be delayed, and perhaps fatally derailed, by an election.

Recent ruminations from Mr. Kilgour and Mr. Cadman appear to suggest that the former will side with the opposition and the latter with the government, creating a tie that Speaker Peter Milliken will break in favour of the government. (Parliamentary tradition dictates that the Speaker votes to preserve the status quo.) Barring the unexpected -- and Lord knows there's been enough of that -- the government will prevail. That's how enormous Belinda Stronach's defection was. Her switched vote probably saved the Liberals.

Unless, of course, both Mr. Kilgour and Mr. Cadman decide that keeping gays from getting legally married is so important it trumps improving life on and off the reserve.

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