VICTORIA - The bizarre soap opera in Ottawa isn't just embarrassing, it's hurting Canadians.
The Liberal government survived a non-confidence motion Thursday by the narrowest margin in Canadian history. MPs were split evenly on whether the government should fall, and the deciding vote to keep it alive was cast by Speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal MP.
The spectacle has been dismaying.
The Liberals, facing defeat, stalled desperately to avoid facing this test. They lined up NDP support by promising to add $4.6 billion in social spending and to cancel promised corporate tax cuts. This week they persuaded Belinda Stronach to abandon the Conservatives - and jilt lover Peter Mackay, the deputy Conservative leader - and take a senior cabinet post in the Liberal government.
If she hadn't jumped, British Columbians would be heading into another election campaign today.
Meanwhile, sick MPs - including Independent Chuck Cadman of Surrey, weak from cancer treatment - were dragging themselves into the House of Commons for the vote. (Cadman cast a critical vote to save the government. His constituents
don't want another election right now, he said.)
What's striking is the desperation on all sides. Conservative leader Stephen Harper has made bringing down the Liberals his over-riding priority, sacrificing any attempt at making Parliament work in the meantime.
Prime Minister Paul Martin has been busy buying the support of MPs, promising Stronach her cabinet post, the NDP billions of new spending and courting Independent MP David Kilgour with promises of increased aid for dying refugees in the Sudan. Think about that for a second. People are dying in a war zone, but Canada's help depends on how badly the governing party needs to stay in power.
And all this is playing out as the Gomery Inquiry hears evidence that taxpayers were routinely ripped off in the sponsorship scandal, and that some of the money ended up in the hands of Liberal operatives.
The last month has seen just about every desperate, discouraging political moves that you could imagine.
What Canadians haven't seen is a working Parliament, or one that is focused on their interests. The Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have made toppling the government their over-arching goal; the Liberals have placed clinging to power
above all else. (Only the New Democrats have demonstrably worked towards practical goals, by shaking down Martin for more spending in the budget.)
Provinces have been lining up to extract promises of cash from an obliging Martin, who figures that opposition MPs from those regions will be reluctant to topple the government before the spending legislation has passed. B.C. will likely add its demands now that the election campaign is over.
It's a mess, and there are only two ways out.
Martin could give up, and call an election. Instead he wants to wait until Gomery reports - and the Liberals have a chance to improve their standing in the polls. As prime minister, if he can get the votes in Parliament, that's his right.
Or Harper could accept the verdict, give up on forcing a non-confidence motion until it would clearly be successful and get back to the normal work of the House.
The second option makes the most sense. The Martin government is wounded, and fragile, and clinging to power. But it has demonstrated the support of Parliament - thanks to some dubious dealing - so it can survive.
And at this point, forcing an election seems politically reckless. Canadians are angry and disillusioned, and any election would be wildly unpredictable. Harper is as likely to be punished as rewarded.
Martin has promised an election within 30 days of receiving the Gomery report. Unless new outrages emerge, or the situation in Parliament changes, Harper and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe should settle for that. It doesn't really matter who
is to blame. What Canadians are looking for now is an end to destructive squabbling.
It's time for Parliament to get back to work.
Footnote: The Stronach defection added the crowning touch to this soap opera. She apparently dumped the Conservative party and Mackay at the same time, sending him back to his family home for a few days to mend a broken heart. His
interviews from there were sad and touching, and added a weird twist to the whole affair.