Many long moons ago I was employed as a talking head (“personality,” we used to say) on talk radio. My job was to report on, analyze and comment on the news, mostly political since that’s what our audience wanted to obsess about. In February 2005 then-finance minister Ralph Goodale introduced a budget, as part of the minority Liberal government of Paul Martin.
Paul Martin, kids, is the businessperson turned politician who was supposed to save the Liberal Party from Jean Chrétien but in fact did the opposite, as I wrote not too long ago in a piece that was aimed at calming the nerves of the Nervous Nellies who think Pierre Poilievre riding high in the polls 18-24 months before an election is reason for Liberals to panic and ditch their leader.
As you know — you do know this, right? — when a government loses a vote of confidence in the House it falls. And budgets are necessarily votes of confidence. It is the job of the Official Opposition to oppose the government, especially on confidence bills. Otherwise, it joins the government, at least as far as said confidence bill goes. In the case of a budget, that goes pretty far. That’s why the Official Opposition always votes against the budget whereas smaller opposition parties that can’t afford yet another election campaign can usually be relied on to support the government and prevent it from falling.
In 2005, both the NDP and the Bloc said they would oppose the budget. Stephen Harper who was leader of the Opposition, started by saying his party would support it because it wasn’t as bad as it could have been or some such rhubarb. I don’t want to say it was unprecedented without doing the research but I’m too lazy — I mean, pressed for time to do that research so I’ll just say I’m not aware of any Opposition ever voting for a budget. If I have readers who want to delve into Hansard to prove me right, I’ll be happy to update this post and give them both credit and virtual flowers.
This, of course, would not do. I wasn’t the only one to object. If the Opposition doesn’t oppose, what’s the point of having one? Sensing some pressure, the Conservatives attempted to walk that back and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty to watch. At one point I had Monte Solberg — then finance critic — in the studio with me and I grilled him to a crisp on the subject. His line was that his party would not support the budget.
So, you’ll vote against it and force an election?
Canadians don’t want an election.
Yeah, but the only way to avoid that is for the Opposition to support the government.
We will not support the government.
Monte, that doesn’t work!
The discussion went sort of downhill from there to a point where, exasperated, I erupted with a heartfelt “Oh, come on!” As in, would you stop being such an ass please and thank you?
And his considered answer to me, right there on live radio, was, and I quote: “Come on yourself.”
In the end, the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc showed up in the House in late June for the vote and they all abstained. That was the largest abstention in the House, ever. Or, if you prefer (and I do), the biggest display of parliamentary chickenshit I’d ever seen.
Fast forward to Bill C-58, introduced earlier this month, that would ban replacement workers from federally regulated workplaces. The Conservatives are refusing to say where they stand on it, with Poilievre simply saying “will be voting on that” without saying anything about the how.
Look, this bill will pass because there’s more than enough support for it already and also it’s not a confidence bill so who cares, really. Poilievre could say, hey, that’s a matter of conscience and I am letting my MPs exercise their discretion on this. Or he could be in favour of the bill. Or against. What he can’t do without looking like a chicken is refusing to say what he thinks of it. He’s a politician. Saying what he thinks of proposed legislation is his main job.
Conservative politicians who are in the game to win power are in a difficult situation because they can’t completely alienate the base that keeps sending in money but they also can’t show up in Ottawa and behave like untutored yahoos because this will alienate the vast majority of reasonable, grown-up voters who want to keep untutored yahoos out of politics as much as possible.
I understand why Poilievre feels stuck. But you know what? He’s the one who made that bed and now he must lie in it. I don’t even want to wish him luck.