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Principles, but mostly politics and boredom, on display in marathon House voting

Thursday was a long day in the House of Commons. It only ended on Friday afternoon.

That’s because the MPs spent hours sitting and rising on an endless series of votes. Ostensibly, these were to implement the budget presented by Finance Minister Bill Morneau last month. Theoretically, the government could have fallen on any of the votes if enough Liberals weren’t in the House, sending the country into an election.

In reality, the government was in little danger. The Liberals hold a majority, and more than half of the Conservative caucus wasn’t present.

But Thursday stretched late into Friday in the House of Commons because the Conservatives were trying to make a point.

It’s a costly point — MPs aren’t paid overtime, but the staff that keeps Parliament running are.

To protest the Liberals’ refusal to allow national security adviser Daniel Jean to testify about the Jaspal Atwal affair, the Conservatives forced round-the-clock voting on dozens and dozens of motions until ending their protest on Friday.

When your correspondent visited the House on Friday (still Thursday in the House), the Liberals had just won another vote, 138 to 40. The tally of Conservatives — there should have been 97 of them, though the bulk of them were either recovering in the halls or not there at all — was bolstered by the small contingent of current and former Bloc MPs. The Liberals had the votes of the NDP on their side.

These votes were about the budget, and so unrelated to Atwal. And if Jean did testify, he would be unlikely to say anything at all out of concerns for national security considering the claims are that the Indian intelligence services were behind Atwal’s invitation to an event attended by the prime minister.

Another vote and the government survives again, increasing its total to 140. The Conservative ranks are thinning, down to 36.

A baby cries. Members sadly groan as NDP MP Niki Ashton brings one of her twins out of the chamber. Two Liberal MPs encourage each other with a high-five when their turn to vote comes. Others play a game of rock-paper-scissors and pass around a birthday card for signing.

Liberals do YMCA dance moves during vote0:35

The prime minister dons his reading glass to peruse a book before a document is brought for him to sign. Another MP flips through a newspaper. Not a few tablets sit propped up on MPs’ desks, as pages keep the MPs hydrated.

Principle, but mostly politics

The marathon voting session was partly about principle — but mostly about politics. The Liberals say that they are trying to prevent the non-partisan civil service from being dragged into the partisan fray. The Conservatives reply that the Liberals already did that when they put Jean up to defend what was well on its way to being a disastrous international voyage for the prime minister.

But the Liberals want to avoid further embarrassment. And the perception that they threw a public servant under the bus might not play very well among voters in Ottawa, already grumpy over problems related to the Phoenix pay system.

Suddenly, the margin tightens. The government contingent shrinks to 137. The opposition, however, numbers but 39 members. An election is averted.

The Conservatives want to prolong the Liberals’ embarrassment. Polls suggest that Canadians believe the India trip did not go very well — and it appears to be the catalyst for a recent downturn in Liberal support.

But polls have not tested what irked Canadians about the Indian trip. It could have been the Atwal affair — the issue for which MPs lost sleep over — but it could just as easily have been about the Indian costumes Justin Trudeau and his family repeatedly donned and the mockery that flowed from it.

The Liberals win another vote, 140 to 39. The desperately bored high school students in the gallery have departed, leaving only a few security guards and your correspondent and a single colleague to observe Canada’s democracy in action.

Team-building exercise

The last time the House was gripped by a marathon voting session was shortly after the 2011 federal election, as the newly installed NDP opposition protested measures the Conservative government was bringing in to force Canada Post employees back to work.

Later, New Democrats would say it was a good team-building exercise for their green crew. Most of the NDP’s caucus were rookie MPs from Quebec — candidates who had put their names forward never expecting to be elected.

The government survives again, 146 to 39.

The filibusterers have more experience than the NDP did in 2011, as defeated parties rarely have many rookies within their ranks. But it is a good time to be a Conservative, and the party has good reason to feel they have the upper hand. Polls suggest the party has the Liberals on the run. Their cousins in Ontario could win a smashing victory in June’s provincial election.

But their leader was not in the House when voting finally ended. After casting votes overnight, Andrew Scheer left the nation’s capital to attend an event in Toronto. The tired ranks of his party — at one point the opposition total dropped to 22 — had to keep up the fight without him.

A moment of drama erupts. Scott Reid, MP for Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston rises to point out that, while the rules have been relaxed due to the extraordinary circumstances of the voting — citing Starbucks coffee on members’ desks — it still might go beyond accepted practice that food was delivered by a page to the MP for Vancouver Quadra.

Joyce Murray protests. It was merely an item of clothing, she says.

Dan Albas rises to remind his colleagues that children are taught that if they bring a treat into the class, they better have enough for everyone. MPs chuckle and then laugh when Speaker Geoff Regan scolds the member for Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola that he spied him bringing mini chocolate Easter eggs into the chamber.

The next vote proceeds without issue and the government survives again. Canada’s democracy rolls on.

CBC | Politics News