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At what price this victory?

As each honourable member rose, Chuck Cadman sat impassively, leaning back in his chair, his hands folded in front of him, his head slightly bowed.

After independent MP Carolyn Parrish nodded to the Speaker, acknowledging her support for the Liberal/NDP budget, there was an agonizing moment of silence in the packed, stifling House of Commons.

Then Mr. Cadman rose: the Liberals shrieked in delight; Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew threw his arms around International Trade Minister Jim Peterson and gave him a big hug, and this government lived to govern another day.

The strain on the country, and on the public trust, is incalculable.

In their desperate efforts to survive, the Liberals did not simply sell their souls and their budget to the NDP. They did not simply risk a return to deficit financing through lavish spending promises, with billions more to come. They did not simply ignore a vote of no-confidence. They did not simply bribe Belinda Stronach with a cabinet seat, to secure her all-important vote. They did worse.

The Liberal vote-buying was unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary history. Ms. Stronach was not the only MP they wooed, and cabinet was not all they had to offer.

Tim Murphy, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, in a conversation with one Conservative MP, may have promised to intervene with Immigration Minister Joe Volpe. Mr. Volpe has registered a complaint with the RCMP and the Ethics Commissioner, contending that B.C. Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal may have made improper requests of constituents who are seeking Mr. Grewal's help in their immigration cases.

If Mr. Grewal and his wife Nina, also an MP, abstain on the budget vote, Mr. Murphy promised Tuesday in a secretly taped conversation with Mr. Grewal, "then I will talk to Volpe and get something happening. (Pause.) Well, I have talked to Volpe, already."

"Is he manageable?" Mr. Grewal asked.

"Yes." Mr. Murphy replied.

A reasonable eavesdropper might conclude Mr. Murphy was offering to get Mr. Volpe to drop his complaints.

There are important caveats: The Liberals say Mr. Grewal is one of several Tory MPs who came to them demanding favours in exchange for support. Mr. Grewal appears to have entrapped Mr. Murphy by secretly taping him. And Scott Reid, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said yesterday that Mr. Grewal "asked if Minister Volpe would at least make a flattering comment about him publicly -- as an offset of some kind, presumably.

Mr. Murphy agreed that he would undertake to raise that very limited suggestion to Minister Volpe, but was insistent that there could be no discussion related to the RCMP or Ethics Commissioner."

You can make your own judgment by reading the transcript of the conversation at http://www.globeandmail.com.

The Murphy-Grewal conversation is a sleazy affair. A Liberal operative allegedly tried to buy two Conservative votes, in exchange for favours. Had the tape not emerged so late Wednesday evening, the public outrage over these backroom shenanigans could have changed yesterday's vote.

But it didn't, and the Liberal government will carry on. Its chances of survival will further improve after the by-election in Labrador, May 24, which is likely to send a Liberal MP back to Parliament.

There will be more billions announced -- let's hope some of it is directed at genuine improvements in native education and housing, where the money is actually needed -- same-sex marriage will become law, and we might get a new law limiting the power of telemarketers to disrupt your dinner.

But if something is gained, much is lost.

The Conservatives are, once again, in disarray. Support from the Red Tory side of the party continues to bleed away. Ms. Stronach's defection follows that of Scott Brison and Keith Martin, two other socially progressive conservative MPs, leaving the party looking more and more like the old Reform/Alliance protest movement, diminishing its chances of making progress in Ontario and Quebec, whence governments are chosen. Stephen Harper's efforts to craft a broad coalition that offers a reasonable alternative to the Liberal hegemony has suffered a serious blow.

Western voters are livid that, once again, moderate Conservatives from Eastern Canada are bolting from the party and supporting the Liberals. For some inexplicable reason, many Canadians take Quebec alienation seriously, but dismiss Western alienation as mere whining. They have no idea.

Worst of all, across the country, public confidence in the federal government continues to ebb. The Liberals believe that only they can hold Canada together, by expanding social programs that, they believe, strengthen national unity.

Not only are they wrong, but their inability to recognize the difference between the national interest and the Liberal interest has led, not only to the sponsorship scandal, but to no-holds-barred efforts to stave off defeat that has made the federal political scene difficult to stomach. Sure, it was wonderful theatre. But how do you feel, today, about your federal government?

In the long run -- the long run being the election that will certainly be called in January -- the Liberals might have done themselves more harm than good. They already had to live down, if such a thing is possible, the evidence of widespread kickbacks and other forms of corruption in Quebec.

Now, every time we see Belinda Stronach, Canadians will be reminded of the gifts the Liberals were willing to bestow to survive in office. The last few weeks amount to a scandal of Liberal electoral desperation that nicely complements the sponsorship affair. What will the party campaign on next winter? Ms. Stronach's efforts to implement the Gomery report? Doesn't that simply tie two scandals together in a single package?

The voters said they wanted to wait for Mr. Justice John Gomery to submit his report. So now we wait. It will be a long seven months.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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