Political tricks in House of Commons risk treating Canadians to a snap fall election

OTTAWA — The federal New Democrats on Tuesday were once again grappling with a decision about whether to support the minority Liberal government or potentially force an election upon Canadians struggling with the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh refused to see it that way, calling it a "farce" that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a confidence matter out of a Conservative motion to create a special COVID-19 pandemic investigation committee.

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If the result is an election, that's on Trudeau to explain to Canadians, Singh said.

"I can't imagine how the prime minister of Canada would look those people in their eyes, people who are afraid and worried, and say, 'I know you're worried and afraid, but we're going to election because I don't like a committee,'" he said.

"That is outrageous and is absurd."

At issue is a Conservative motion that would create a special House of Commons committee to probe allegations of corrupt spending in COVID-19 programs, a move the Liberals say essentially means the opposition has no confidence in the government and an election should be held.

The Bloc Québécois said Tuesday they will support the Conservatives, meaning the pressure is on the NDP to make a crucial decision: side with their opposition colleagues and bring down the government, or with the Liberals.

Singh was pressed on which direction he would go but wouldn't say. Negotiations are ongoing, but what concerns him, he said, is whether the Liberals are even interested in negotiating.

"The prime minister is not looking for solution here, the prime minister is looking for an excuse to go to an election," he said.

"And I will not give the prime minister an excuse to go to an election … He is not going to be able to hide behind the opposition."

A vote on the motion is to be held on Wednesday, which also marks the one-year anniversary of the Liberals' being re-elected with a minority government.

They've already survived several confidence votes, thanks to support from the New Democrats after they won concessions on pandemic benefit programs.

The NDP could also abstain for Wednesday's vote, which would toss the choice into the hands of three Green and two Independent MPs, as there are 153 Liberal MPs (not counting the Speaker who votes only in the event of a tie) — the same as the combined number of Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs.

Green MP Elizabeth May questioned the Conservatives' motivation Tuesday, accusing them of chasing headlines.

"I certainly agree that we want to get to the bottom of matters that are being covered up, but this motion smacks of flavour of the day in the WE Charity scandal," she said.

The Liberals have countered with their own version of a special committee that would look at all pandemic-related spending, including but not exclusively spending that the Conservatives allege smacks of corruption. It would have six Liberal members, including the chair who would vote only in the event of a tie, and six opposition members.

The Conservative version would focus on three examples of spending that they've linked to individuals or organizations with close ties to the Liberals. It would have 15 members, nine of them from opposition parties, and a Conservative chair.

The primary focus would be on the abandoned multimillion-dollar student grant program the Liberals intended to have managed by WE Charity, an organization with long-standing connections to the Trudeau family.

Several Commons committees were probing that deal before the Liberals prorogued Parliament in August. Efforts to resume their work have been stymied by the Liberals' decision to filibuster the committees.

The Conservatives' committee would have the power to call everyone from the prime minister to civil servants as witnesses, demand the production of documents related to the various programs within a specific amount of time and take precedence over any other House of Commons committees to carry out that work.

The Liberals have argued that would paralyze government, a notion the opposition dismissed Tuesday.

One of the NDP proposals is to have the Liberal version of the committee chaired by a member of the opposition, ostensibly to avoid Liberal filibustering although having an opposition chair was not enough to end a days-long filibuster last week at the ethics committee.

"We can't trust a Liberal chair," NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said during debate on the motion Tuesday.

The Liberals gave no sign Tuesday they were open to an opposition chair, holding tight to their assertion that the more aggressive proposal from the Tories crosses a line.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said earlier Tuesday the Liberals' confidence-motion gambit underscores the argument the government is trying to avoid scrutiny of controversial deals.

"In many parts of Canada kids can't go trick-or-treating but the Liberals think Canadians should go to the polls rather than their answering several simple questions," he said.

"They don't want the truth to come out."

Still, O'Toole said the goal of the motion is not to force an election but to get accountability.

He offered to amend it, changing the name away from "anticorruption" and broadening its mandate upon consultation with the NDP and Bloc.

The Tories were also willing to include language that would make it explicit forming the committee was not a vote of non-confidence.

None of that appeared to change the government's mind.

"If you write a book about Frankenstein and call it 'Cinderella,' it's still a book about Frankenstein," said Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Liberals filibustered committees where they have control.

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