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Well, the Liberals survived -- now it's the re-election thing

As Wellington said after Waterloo, it was a "near run thing," except, for the federal Liberals, yesterday's parliamentary victory did not end the political war, but merely postponed it for another time.

By one vote, 153-152, Prime Minister Paul Martin's government remained alive, courtesy of independent MP Chuck Cadman's support and, more important, the switch of Belinda Stronach to the Liberals from the Conservatives.

Had Ms. Stronach not changed sides, the Liberals would have been defeated and an election held. As a result, she will become, if possible, an even more polarizing figure in Canadian politics -- detested by those who desperately wanted an election to defeat the Liberals, hailed by those who wished the government sustained.

For the Conservatives, the failure to defeat the government on the budget, with support from the Bloc Québécois, ends, however temporarily, their furious push to capitalize on the Gomery inquiry into Liberal corruption in Quebec. The parliamentary defeat will inevitably call into question Stephen Harper's strategy to push so hard for an early election.

He pushed that strategy in the teeth of public opinion polls showing that most Canadians did not want an early election -- an opinion in Mr. Cadman's B.C. riding that helped persuade him to sustain the government. Mr. Harper will now be accused -- privately, of course -- of overplaying the Conservatives' hand.

The Liberals' parliamentary triumph bought months of additional time in office. They did it by buying support from the New Democratic Party with changes to their original budget, trying to buy public support with massive new spending, and successful parliamentary manoeuvring. Mr. Martin has promised, however, to call an election within 30 days of the Gomery report, due in late November or December.

Who knows what that election will bring? But the Liberals, Canada's most successful political party, managed to escape from parliamentary trouble by postponing opposition days in Parliament, refusing to consider last week's parliamentary defeat as a matter of no-confidence, and then bringing Ms. Stronach to their side.

They were also saved, of course, by Mr. Cadman's support. Seldom, if ever, in Canadian politics has one MP held so much influence over major events. Had he voted against the government, Canada would be into an election this morning.

The near run thing of yesterday now allows the Liberals to try to restore their battered fortunes. They can cut more one-off deals with provinces, make more spending announcements, manage the parliamentary timetable, adjust the cabinet if necessary, stage-manage events for the Prime Minister (whose popularity has slumped), and use all the powers and trappings of government to cling to what unites Liberals -- power.

The Conservatives desperately pushed for the early vote to deny the Liberals control of the political agenda, which is what being in office allows. The Conservatives also feared that, when the Gomery report is finally published, it might exonerate Mr. Martin himself and arrive when public attention had strayed from the sponsorship scandal. Having hoped to ride that scandal into office, the Conservatives will now worry that voters will forget, if not forgive, by the time of the next election.

All is not lost, obviously, for the Conservatives, disappointed though they will be by yesterday's failure. Their most important national objective is to attract reasonable candidates and build some strength -- if that is possible -- in Quebec, so they can blunt the charge that a future Conservative government would be beholden to Bloc support.

Any indication of Conservative support in Quebec will help the party in Ontario, where voters worry about parties that are not sufficiently bridge-builders between that province and the rest of Canada. The Conservatives can also think through policy alternatives to the Liberals, thereby presenting themselves as more ready to govern than they are today.

The other big, if temporary, winner from the parliamentary manoeuvrings is the NDP, whose leader, Jack Layton, negotiated the government-saving deal with the Liberals and will try to take credit for it. The NDP's perennial problem when it makes deals with the Liberals, however, is that the Liberals often reap the benefits.

The Liberals believe that the new budget, the one that the House of Commons approved yesterday by one vote, is popular and that, given more time, it will restore the party's fortunes. Survival is what the Liberals bought yesterday; re-election is another matter.

jsimpson@globeandmail.ca

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