Grinning and clearly elated, Prime Minister Paul Martin looked as if he'd just won an election when he appeared before the cheering, clapping Liberal caucus last night. In fact, he has won little more than a brief reprieve. His government's survival, by the narrowest possible margin in the most dramatic vote in a quarter-century, was an expression of confidence in only the most technical sense. The government is still very much on probation. Voters will pass their final judgment on it by next winter at the latest and, unless its performance improves, that judgment may be harsh.
The government earned its stay of execution not by winning over the public with the power of its argument or the quality of its programs, but by resorting to the lowest form of political gamesmanship. The Liberals, to give them their due, have always been ruthless political professionals, and in the past few weeks they showed it.
First came the tawdry deal with Jack Layton's New Democrats, in which a desperate Mr. Martin agreed to distribute billions of dollars that only a few weeks before he had sworn Ottawa didn't have. Thanks to last night's vote, the NDP will get its wish list fulfilled, and the public purse will be $4.6-billion lighter. Yet just minutes after a vote that opened up the spending floodgates, the Prime Minister had the effrontery to boast of how the Liberals had restored fiscal responsibility to the country.
Then came the infamous last-minute deal with Belinda Stronach, in which the Prime Minister gave a senior cabinet post to a turncoat Tory with barely a year's experience in Parliament. In between those ploys, the government courted independent MP David Kilgour with promises of more aid to the victims of Sudan's Darfur region and apparently bartered with a British Columbia Conservative MP over possible rewards for his abstention in the parliamentary showdown. All this, to win another eight or nine months of minority government.
Was it worth it? The Liberals clearly think so, if their victorious demonstration last night is anything to go by. But the price, both to the treasury and to public trust in politicians (what little of it remains), was high.
All that having been said, the government has survived. Parliament is the final arbiter between elections of whether a government should continue in office, and last night the House of Commons, however narrowly, said it should. It is incumbent on Stephen Harper's Conservatives, whose shrill performance in the past few, tumultuous weeks has been barely more admirable than the Liberals', to stand down now and give the Liberals a chance to govern.
That need not mean giving the Liberals a blank cheque. As Mr. Harper said last night when Mr. Martin asked for his co-operation, the Opposition's job is to scrutinize the government, not to facilitate its program. But it would be pointless nowfor the Tories to try to haul the government down again, after losing this confrontation and tying the House up in knots for weeks. Enough of all that. Mr. Martin has promised to hold an election shortly after the Gomery report in any case. At that time, voters will have all the facts about the sponsorship scandal in front of them.
In the meantime, the Liberals should keep humble. They were wily this month, and more than a little lucky. Ms. Stronach fairly fell into their lap, and Independent Chuck Cadman, a conservative by conviction, saved their skin in the final hour. Whether they really deserved to survive is a question that, in the end, only the voters can decide.