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John Ivison: At least Canadians now know that Trudeau's priorities don't include them

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons, October 21, 2020.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons, October 21, 2020.

Reason returned to Parliament Hill as the Liberals made clear they will not regard a new Conservative motion on Canada’s pandemic response to be a matter of confidence.

The Trudeau Liberals have wisely decided not to tax the patience of voters who have no interest in an election over procedural issues like opposition day motions.

American economist Thomas Sowell might well have been talking about the folly in the Commons when he said no one will truly understand politics until people understand that politicians are not trying to solve the public’s  problems, they are trying to solve their own, “of which getting elected and re-elected are no. 1 and no. 2. Whatever is no. 3 is far behind.”

After making the vote on a fairly routine Opposition day motion a matter of confidence that could have sparked a general election, the Liberals have concluded they over-reached.

The Conservatives tabled another motion in the House of Commons on Thursday, this time aimed at investigating the government’s response to the health issues raised by COVID-19 – rapid testing, vaccine development, the availability of PPE, and the cancellation of the pandemic early warning system.

Conservative health critic, Michelle Rempel Garner, said the language in the motion is non-partisan; that it is supported by the other opposition parties; and, that it is Parliament’s role “to see what’s working and what’s not.”

The motion calls for records from ministers’ offices and government departments to be delivered within 15 days, but only after they have been vetted by the Commons’ law clerk on privacy and national security grounds.

It is the kind of request that had the Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez frothing at the mouth earlier in the week, when he talked about the previous motion on an “anti-corruption” committee – what he called a “dangerous partisan plan to paralyze the government.”

“Where does it end? Where does this end?” he bewailed. “We can’t let the Conservatives force public servants to step away from the crucial role they’re playing in this pandemic to go searching for documents to simply satisfy the purely partisan agenda of the opposition. And do we really want a committee that has the power to force the prime minister, deputy prime minister, all ministers to drop the work, the important work they’re doing and come testify?”

It would be a stretch to suggest that the average minister – and some of these ministers are very average – can’t run their departments and still find a spare hour to appear at committee.

A kind of fever took hold on Parliament Hill.

Entranced by the prospect of winning back their majority, the Liberals looked past the fact they were setting a dangerous precedent by making an Opposition day motion a matter of confidence.

Alarmed at the prospect their antagonistic motion might spark an election they would lose, the Conservatives had six of their MPs catch diplomatic flu, thereby missing a vote the government side won handily, with the help of the NDP and the Greens.

The Liberals don’t like the new motion, arguing the scope of the document request will catch private companies making vaccines and PPE in its dragnet.

This temporary reprieve from a general election will be greeted with a sigh of relief

But they realize that if they deem a health committee inquiry to be a matter of confidence, they may as well lock the doors of the House of Commons.

Kevin Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary to the House leader, said that if the Conservative motion passes, the government will do everything it can to respond, even if getting all the documents within 15 days “will be physically impossible.”

This temporary reprieve from a general election will be greeted with a sigh of relief, not just from the millions of Canadians who have got more meaningful things to do, but also by Canada’s chief electoral officer.

Stéphane Perrault appeared before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on Thursday, where he admitted that holding a snap general election during a pandemic would have been a challenge. “I have to be honest – a national election is a logistical feat in the best of circumstances and these are not the best of circumstances,” he said.

A successful election could be held, he said, if the government chooses a longer election period (up to seven weeks) and holds the vote over a weekend, instead of the traditional Monday polling day. But Perrault conceded that in the event of local lockdowns, the writ could be withdrawn, leaving ridings hit by the pandemic without representation.

Let’s hope the prime minister was listening.

He has said he is not going to take his kids trick or treating this year because of COVID, yet he was quite prepared to risk the health of voters and election workers because the polls are propitious.

There is a silver lining to all this. Justin Trudeau has at least helped many more Canadians to understand that their concerns come a distant third in his list of priorities.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely