Ottawa — The federal Conservative government has been brought down on a historic vote in Parliament, setting the stage for a May election.
MPs voted 156-145 in favour of a Liberal motion today citing Stephen Harper’s minority Tories for contempt of Parliament and expressing non-confidence in the government.
Harper is set to visit the Governor General’s residence Saturday morning to dissolve the 40th Parliament and sound the starting gun on an election campaign. It will be the fourth election in seven years.
The contempt charge marks a first for a national government anywhere in the Commonwealth.
The Bloc Quebecois and the NDP both supported the Liberal non-confidence motion, fuelling angry Conservative denunciations of a “reckless” and “undemocratic” coalition.
But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says there can be no more profound cause for an election than the protection of democracy.
Commons Speaker Peter Milliken and an opposition-dominated committee had already found a case for contempt, and the Liberals ensured that would be the trigger for the defeat of the government 29 months after the last election.
The opposition parties wasted no time pounding home their campaign message, slamming the prime minister as a secretive leader who abuses power and leads a government plagued by scandal.
In the past month, the Conservative party and four of its top officials have been charged with election overspending and two RCMP investigations have been launched against former political staffers.
Ignatieff kicked off debate on the confidence motion this morning, accusing Harper of subverting democracy.
“You have spoken, Mr. Speaker. The committee has spoken, and now the House must speak with a clear voice,” Ignatieff told the Commons.
“And it must say that a government that breaks the rules and conceals facts from the Canadian people does not deserve to remain in office.”
Ignatieff acknowledged that some Canadians are questioning the need for another election.
“We did not seek an election,” he said. “But if we need one to replace a government that doesn’t respect democracy with one that does, I can’t think of a more necessary election.”
John Baird, the Conservative House leader, responded that he was “saddened” by the premature end to Canada’s 40th Parliament.
That end is coming, said Baird, “because of the reckless actions of the Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and NDP coalition in forcing an unwanted an unnecessary election on Canadians.”
Harper is expected to campaign on this week’s federal budget which was laden with tightly targeted tax credits and riding-specific goodies, while simultaneously accusing his opponents of plotting to form a coalition government if he fails to win a majority.
The NDP said the budget fails to deliver real relief to beleaguered seniors, understaffed health-care systems, and middle-class Canadians burdened by home heating fuel taxes.
NDP Leader Jack Layton was still imploring the government to rewrite it’s budget as late as Friday morning’s final question period in the House.
“They’re just plain stubborn,” said Layton. “Why are Conservatives intent on provoking an election?”
Prospective voters have been bombarded with $26 million worth of feel-good Economic Action Plan ads over the past 11 weeks and bureaucrats were directed late last year to start using the “Harper Government” in place of Government of Canada on departmental news releases.
Taxpayer-funded ads from the Finance Department warned of the “fragile” nature of the economic recovery, and Baird alluded to the threat again in the Commons.
“It’s a vote that will weaken Canada’s economic recovery,” he said of the Liberal motion.
The government’s economic message, however, appears to be taking a backseat to its dire warnings of a Liberal-led coalition threat.
Ignatieff has tried to polarize the coming election into a two-party fight between Harper Conservatives and those who oppose them — between “a blue door and a red door.”
Conservatives are trying to convince Canadians otherwise.
“Lurking behind the red door are socialists and separatists plotting for cabinet seats!” thundered MP Dean Del Mastro in the Commons.
The alarmist Conservative talk was scoffed at by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who has pointedly noted that Harper proposed defeating Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government on its throne speech in 2004 and replacing it, with NDP and Bloc backing.
Duceppe revelled in the details this week, describing the Delta Hotel on Maissonneuve Boulevard in Montreal where Harper convened the conspirators.
“He was coming in my office saying, ’If Martin is going to lose confidence, what do you want in the throne speech? What would you like in the budget?”’ Duceppe recalled.
Ignatieff attempted to inoculate himself Friday against the nasty, brutish and short election campaign that appears likely in light of recent inflamed rhetoric from all sides of the House.
“Enough of the politics of fear,” he said. “Enough of the politics of division. Enough of the politics of personal destruction. Enough is enough.”