Tories Sit, draw fire
Globe and Mail - Thursday, March 10, 2022

OTTAWA -- Conservative MPs staged the largest abstention in Canadian parliamentary history last night, sitting in the House of Commons without casting a single vote as Liberals passed their budget over the objections of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.

With 82 of his members of Parliament in their seats, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pretended to rise when the Speaker called for the votes against the budget. The Official Opposition Leader then sat back down and joined his caucus in not voting one way or another.

The budget passed 132-73.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton ridiculed Mr. Harper and his MPs for abstaining.

"I imagine that during the next election campaign their slogan will be 'vote for us, we won't show up,' '' Mr. Duceppe said.

Mr. Layton said the Conservatives should have voted in favour of the budget given that Mr. Harper had said on budget day Feb. 23 that he was pleased with the document.

"This idea of coming to Ottawa only to sit on your hands when the most important vote comes up. . . . He wants to pretend he's voting against it while at the same time holding the government in power on the budget. I don't think he's fooling anyone," Mr. Layton said.

Mr. Harper rejected the criticism.

"What's become apparent is that the Bloc Québécois and the NDP will grandstand on these things [but] it is up to us in the Conservative Party to decide whether the time has come to have an election," he said. "In our judgment -- I think in Canadians' judgment -- it is not that time."

The Liberal minority government would have fallen if the budget had been defeated. The Bloc and the NDP vowed to vote against it, forcing the Conservatives, who do not want to fight an election because recent polls show little change since the June vote, to ensure that the budget passed. However, it would have been politically unpalatable to support it.

The Conservative caucus debated a mix of no votes and abstentions, but rejected the idea as too complicated.

Finance Minister Ralph Goodale said the budget's passage shows that the Opposition realized the government's plan would be hard to campaign against.

"They obviously concluded that this budget was sufficiently strong that they did not want to risk their political position on an election. That says the budget is popular with Canadians," Mr. Goodale said.

Yesterday's abstention by the Conservatives was unprecedented in size. Previous minority governments have formed coalitions with opposition parties, preventing similar situations.

Abstentions are usually limited to a few MPs who want to signal opposition to a measure without defying their leaders.

Mr. Harper portrayed his party's decision as a responsible way to avoid an unwanted election, but denied his party's actions indicate support for the budget. He said the Liberals should not assume the Conservatives will deliver on another budget.

"I didn't support this budget," he said. "I allowed the Parliament to continue its work for a period to see whether the government is capable of moving in our direction."

He warned that he could precipitate an election over specific spending items. MPs on the House of Commons committees have until June to review the $187-billion in annual federal spending.

Last year, the opposition parties united to reduce spending for the Governor-General and the Privy Council Office.

Mr. Harper said the Conservatives will challenge money allocated for the Liberals' Kyoto and childcare programs, as well as for foundations that are not accountable to Parliament.

He said it would depend on the issue whether he was prepared to bring down the government over a particular item.

He said he hopes the opposition can reach consensus on which programs should have their funding reduced or scrapped.

New Democratic MP Pat Martin, who championed the reduction in the Governor-General's budget, said he was pleased with Mr. Harper's pledge to work with the other opposition parties to reduce spending.

"I think it's safe to say there will be all-party co-operation in the opposition at the estimates level because we've flexed our muscles once and found it to be kind of exciting and I think you'll see more of that."

Mr. Martin added he would support any attempt to scrap the federal gun registry.

"I wouldn't want one more penny to go to that gun registry and I think there'll be interest in our party to stop that," he said.

Government House Leader Tony Valeri said the government will decide which reductions to programs to treat as a matter of confidence.

"We've gone through this process once before and, obviously, we saw a reduction in the [budget of the] Governor-General and the Privy Council the last time and those were not considered matters of confidence, so we'll be approaching them the same way, but we will certainly look at each and every one on its own merits," he said.