Ignatieff takes heat for allowing rebellion
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former right-hand man warned Michael Ignatieff Tuesday that his leadership could be in peril after his decision to allow a rebellion by his Newfoundland and Labrador MPs.
Tom Flanagan said following the “dictates” of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams by allowing the province’s six Liberal MPs to vote against the Harper budget was the “easier course” to take for the Liberal Leader and will work “okay” in the short term.
“But it is a sign of weakness in the brutal world of politics and will create problems in the longer run. Harper would never do something similar,” said Mr. Flanagan, now a political science professor at the University of Calgary.
The budget passed Tuesday night with the support of Mr. Ignatieff and his Liberals. The six Liberal MPs from Newfoundland and Labrador stood with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to vote against the budget.
There was outrage in the province over measures that will cost Newfoundland and Labrador about $1.5-billion in federal transfers over the next three years.
Mr. Ignatieff allowed his MPs the unusual move of breaking with caucus after several days of frantic negotiations and a telephone call by the Liberal Leader to the Prime Minister asking him to delay the measure that penalizes the province. Mr. Harper refused.
“After much discussion of this issue with my colleagues from Newfoundland and Labrador I decided to permit them in the budget vote … a one-time vote of protest to signal their displeasure and my displeasure at these unilateral actions, which in my view weaken our federation,” Mr. Ignatieff said Tuesday.
Just a week ago, the Liberal Leader announced his party would support the budget – with an amendment calling for three updates – in a confidence vote. He argued that Canadians didn’t want another election.
But on Monday night, over a glass of Ontario Chardonnay and a dinner of hake on white bean and roasted cherry tomato salad, he changed his mind. The Liberal Leader had invited the six MPs and his chief of staff, Paul Zed, to his official residence at Stornoway for a “working dinner” on the issue.
“It was a very cordial and friendly dinner,” said a guest. “A consensus was reached.”
Some of the MPs, such as Scott Andrews, had been prepared to be punished. He had campaigned in his Avalon riding on the issue of equalization payments and was not changing his mind about his vote.
Mr. Ignatieff called Mr. Williams yesterday morning to inform him he was allowing the MPs to oppose the budget.
Elizabeth Matthews, a senior aide to Mr. Williams, rejected the notion that the decision will undermine Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership.
“We certainly aren’t running the Liberal caucus,” she said. “The Premier has said he does trust Mr. Ignatieff, obviously as opposed to the Prime Minister. We clearly see this as the PM’s problem. He made the promise, he broke the promise, and now he has made unilateral changes to punish us.
“Liberal MPs are in a tough spot to be sure,” she said.
Mr. Flanagan, who served as Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, said that the Prime Minister, faced with a similar situation, would have told his MPs: “It’s my way or the highway.”
“He wouldn’t have let a premier pull the strings on the members,” he said.
However, it was Premier Williams’s rage against Mr. Harper and his “Anything But Conservatives” campaign that led to the Conservatives being shut out in the province in the last election.
Even some Liberals are questioning Mr. Ignatieff’s decision, saying that in this first real test of his leadership, he couldn’t keep his MPs in line.
“It looks bad on Ignatieff and his control over his caucus,” said one long-time Liberal.
The optics of going against a leader in a budget vote are not good, which is why MPs are usually disciplined. In 2007, former Liberal MP Joe Comuzzi was kicked out of Stéphane Dion’s caucus for pledging to support the Conservative budget. In 1996, John Nunziata was kicked out of Jean Chrétien’s Liberal caucus for voting against the government’s budget over what he considered a broken promise not to rescind the GST.
Others among the Liberals are wondering where it will stop. Could Newfoundland MPs break ranks again on another issue? And what about Quebec MPs, who are upset with some of the budget measures?
For now, the Quebec Liberal caucus is supporting the budget despite opposition to certain provisions by Premier Jean Charest. However, Mr. Charest did not pressure Quebec Liberal MPs to vote against the budget.
“The Premier has always said that it isn’t up to him to tell federal MPs how to vote in Parliament. We said we disagreed with the unilateral changes made by Ottawa on equalization payments …We expressed our opinion. It is now up to the federal MPs from Quebec to vote according to their conscience,” said Mr. Charest’s press secretary, Hugo D’Amour.
Quebec Liberal MP Denis Coderre, the leader’s Quebec lieutenant, said that the issue involving Quebec is not the same as the one regarding Newfoundland.
“I truly feel there is a political vendetta between Harper and Williams,” he said, adding that the budget must be supported because there is an “urgent need” to “fight against the recession.”
“We’re [Quebec Liberal MPs] all going to vote for the budget issue to take our responsibility to show total solidarity,” he said.
With a report by Rhéal Séguin in Quebec