OTTAWA — A weeklong political roller-coaster glided to an anticlimactic halt Friday as Stephen Harper’s minority government easily survived its first confidence test of the fall parliamentary session.
As expected, a Conservative budget motion sailed through the House of Commons by a vote of 224-74, with the support of the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.
The Liberals, who have propped up the government on 79 consecutive confidence votes, stood en masse in opposition for the first time since Harper came to power in January 2006.
Liberal MPs have long chafed at swallowing their convictions to avoid an election and fumed over NDP taunts of cowardice. They were elated to finally turn the tables Friday, jeering as grim-faced New Democrats took on the role of chief government stabilizer.
“It feels good to stand up for conviction,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said later.
He mocked NDP Leader Jack Layton.
“You know, Jack and Jill have gone up the hill and we know how that little fairy tale ended.”
“Jill” was an apparent reference to the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Gilles Duceppe, who also supported the government in the vote.
The vote capped a week in which the chances of a fall election careened from all-but-certain to remote. Just how long Harper’s Conservatives have staved off defeat remains to be seen and is almost entirely dependent on the NDP.
Ignatieff intends to propose a non-confidence motion at the earliest opportunity, expected during the first week of October.
Duceppe reiterated Friday that his party will support the Liberal motion, leaving the government’s fate in Layton’s hands.
Layton reiterated Friday that his party will prop up the government at least long enough to pass legislation extending $1 billion worth of employment insurance benefits to long-term workers.
Liberals wanted to fast-track that legislation through Parliament before the next confidence test, robbing Layton of his rationale for supporting the government. But the Bloc stymied all-party negotiations Thursday to expedite the process, leaving the bill to wend its way through Parliament at the normal pace, which typically takes months.
The NDP leader, who has boasted about being the “real opposition” to Harper, tried to put the best face on his party’s abrupt reversal of roles.
He argued that NDP support for Friday’s motion was necessary to ensure budget measures, including the popular home renovation tax credit and an income tax credit for the working poor, are implemented.
“I sure wouldn’t want to face the hundreds of thousands of folks who went out and picked up a hammer or hired a contractor and expected to have a tax commitment honoured,” Layton said.
Beyond the budget measures contained in Friday’s motion, he said it’s important to pass the EI bill so that jobless Canadians get the help they need.
“The House of Commons should be a place that helps people out when they’re in tough times. … We would prefer to get action on the issues that people are concerned about than to have an election.”
The Bloc’s Duceppe maintained the EI bill will benefit only a small percentage of long-term workers — primarily in Ontario’s auto sector — and castigated New Democrats for supporting it.
“They are scared of having an election. Period.”
Layton agreed the bill won’t help many unemployed but indicated that the NDP wants to pass it as a first step and seek further improvements to the EI system later.