LAW-ORDER AGENDA MAY SPUR NDP SHOWDOWN
Election Looms If Opposition Defeats Tory Bills in Parliament
OTTAWA -- The New Democratic Party is considering "really playing hardball" in the new session of Parliament, to remind the Conservative government to listen to the views of all Canadians, particularly as it pursues a contentious law and order agenda that could bring defeat and a fall election.
"We're very troubled by the approach the government is taking, which is 'do it our way,' when they've only got support of a third of the country," Windsor MP Joe Comartin, the New Democratic Party's justice critic, said Friday. "There very much is the need for consensus-building here and we're trying to bring pressure to bear on them to think along that line, as opposed to what we saw from the prime minister" this week.
Comartin was referring to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's defiant tone in Wednesday's news conference, in which he suggested there could be a whole series of confidence votes following the Oct. 16 throne speech. Under parliamentary tradition, the speech itself is treated as a confidence matter, whose passage is necessary for a government to continue governing.
But Harper said he would treat legislation flowing from the throne speech as matters of confidence. Under those terms, the defeat of even routine legislation would cause the government to fall, triggering an election.
Within that adversarial new context, among the thorniest areas will be criminal justice and public safety. Harper has staked out law and order as a priority for his government which the opposition parties have had trouble with.
Even if Harper's minority government survives a confidence vote on the throne speech, the prospect of an election may continue to loom large, hinging on how hard the government pushes its law and order agenda, and how hard the opposition pushes back.
Only a united opposition, with the NDP, Liberals and Bloc Quebecois voting together, can bring down the government.
When Parliament was prorogued, three law-and-order bills before the Commons died on the order paper. One would have abolished the gun registry, another would have toughened the treatment of repeat dangerous offenders, and a third would have increased penalties against impaired drivers.
Three bills before the Senate also died, including measures to increase minimum penalties against gun offenders, increasing the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14, and the so-called reverse onus bill, which would have required some categories of accused persons to demonstrate why they should not remain in custody.
In order to reinstate a bill and pick up where the process was interrupted by prorogation, the government would need unanimous consent from all parties; without it a vote would be held to reinstate the bill.
One way for the NDP to rein in the government on these bills would be to make its support for reinstatement of some or all of the justice bills conditional on the government reinstating C-30, an environmental bill that the opposition parties amended to comply with the Kyoto accord previously abandoned by the government.
"We think it's actually improper to do that kind of trading off," Comartin conceded in an interview. But he added that the decision has not been made whether to play that kind of "hardball."
Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan's office declined to comment on which bills the government would seek to resurrect. But a statement said the government remains "fully committed to our agenda to make communities safer by tackling crime."
The Bloc Quebecois has supported certain law-and-order measures, particularly legislation to crack down on street gangs, but is opposed to other key Tory positions. For example, it wants to preserve a form of gun registration and is opposed to biometric identification or any other types of crime-control measures that could lead to racial profiling. The party also insists on measures to attack the root causes of crime, such as poverty, inequality and social isolation.
Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
2007 The Vancouver Sun