OTTAWA — This week may be the last for Harper government as we know it. Or not.
The next five days are rife with opportunity for the opposition parties to defeat the Conservative government and provoke an early May election.
But despite the deafening pre-election bluster that has every party at a stage of trigger-happy readiness, it’s still not clear whether the government will die this week.
What’s certain, however, is that by next weekend, the Canadian public will have a much better idea where the parties’ bottom lines are — and how much of that bluster is actually substantive.
“We would know ultimately by Friday where parties more or less are,” said Liberal House Leader David McGuinty. “They’re really going to look at their options very carefully.”
MPs return to the House of Commons on Monday after a “break” week that was anything but restful.
The Conservatives were accused of contempt of Parliament, hauled into court on charges of abusing their power to raise money for their party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the RCMP to investigate a former top advisor after media reports that he lobbied government officials on behalf of a company in which his girlfriend worked. Many Tories now believe an election call within a week’s time is inevitable.
“There’s no one thinking we’re going to survive this,” said one Tory.
Wednesday, Thursday and especially Friday will likely all include opportunities for the opposition parties to vote to defeat the Tories, if they play their cards right, various party officials say.
But in order to make the government fall, all three opposition parties have to vote against the Conservatives. And since this week also brings the federal budget — with the possibility of goodies that would appeal to the NDP or the Bloc Quebecois — a united front against the government is not a given.
The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois have both widely publicized their lists of expectations for the budget, and would be hard pressed to reject it if the Tories find a way to deliver on some of their demands, insiders say.
Indeed, the government has indicated that it will make poverty among seniors a spending priority — at the top of the list of demands for the NDP.
“One senior living in poverty is one senior too many in that predicament,” Seniors Minister Julian Fantino said last week.
And on Sunday, Quebec’s finance minister reminded Quebecers that a $2.2-billion deal with Ottawa on the Harmonized Sales Tax was imminent — a top priority for the Bloc Quebecois in the budget.
“It’s not the only thing, but it has to be there. If it’s not, we’re not supporting it. If it is, we’ll look at it,” Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said in Montreal.
A spokesman for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, however, downplayed the prospect of a deal showing up in the budget this week, saying “there’s a fair bit more work to do” even though Quebec had sent Ottawa a draft agreement a month ago.
So will the two opposition parties turn a blind eye to the accusations of contempt in order to keep the Conservatives in power long enough to put their budget into place?
The NDP is looking to 2005, when it allowed the Liberal government under Paul Martin to stick around long enough to pass its budget.
But it’s also safe to assume that whoever wins the next election will implement the Tory promises for seniors and health care and Quebec — and then some, said NDP MP Pat Martin.
“You’d have to consider that the Conservatives’ ceiling on the budget probably becomes the next government’s floor,” he said in an interview.
The wild week of politics begins Monday with committee hearings to finalize a report that is expected to find the government in contempt of Parliament for withholding costing details for key pieces of crime legislation.
The stakes will be even higher on Tuesday afternoon, when Flaherty tables his budget. Opposition leaders always have something to say right afterwards, but it may take NDP Leader Jack Layton until Wednesday to make a clear statement on whether he will support the spending plan.
Wednesday or Thursday will likely bring a House of Commons vote on the finding of contempt. While the vote may not officially be deemed a confidence motion that would bring the government down, the wording of the motion may include words to that effect. Or, Harper may well decide to equate the finding of contempt with a lack of confidence in the government.
Indeed, rumours are rampant that Harper may not wait for the opposition parties to pull the plug, and take the walk over to the Governor-General’s on his own accord, asking for government to be dissolved.
Thursday could also bring a vote on the budget, or on future spending allocations — votes which would automatically be considered confidence measures.
If the government survives until Friday, the Liberals are scheduled to have an opposition day that they could use to put forward some kind of confidence vote.
But McGuinty points out the Conservatives have already moved the date of the opposition day once, and could well do it again.
“It’s very fluid,” said the NDP’s Martin. But he added: “Sometimes the sabre-rattling gets so intense that there is no turning back. We may be reaching that point.”