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Liberals can't ignore confidence 
defeats: expert 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. May 25, 2005]

OTTAWA  — A constitutional expert says the Liberal government cannot ignore the results of as many as eight confidence votes they may face in the House of Commons in the coming weeks before the summer recess. 

Constitutional expert Prof. Andrew Heard of Simon Fraser University, who is the author of Canadian Constitutional Conventions: The Marriage of Law and Politics, made the comments in reaction to a Globe and Mail story that appeared Wednesday suggesting the government was considering ignoring defeats on matters of confidence. 

"There are options," Liberal whip Karen Redman told The Globe. "Clearly if there was a loss, the government may decide to put forward another confidence motion when everybody was there to see if it held the day. Those options are available." 

But Prof. Heard disagreed with such a practice and said as long as there was proper notice there is "absolutely no excuse" to ignore the results of a confidence vote.

"It's an illogical contradiction to say that we will respond to defeats on matters of confidence to say we will have our own vote of confidence," Prof. Heard said in a phone interview. "It doesn't make sense."

The government will face confidence motions on the two budget bills that passed second reading last week and on any amendments to them. There are also six opposition supply days remaining this session where a non-confidence motion could be put forward. 

Prof. Heard said the opposition days are also confidence motions. 

Redman's comments also provided ammunition to the Conservatives who attacked the Liberals in a news release.

"The arrogant Liberal government has learned nothing," the Tories said. "How can a prime minister claim to have so much respect for the democratic process, while continually thumbing his nose at Parliament?"

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Liberals appeared to be downplaying the issue and described The Globe story as "highly speculative."

" We would treat any future confidence vote the way we would have treated them in the past as matters of confidence," a senior government official told PoliticsWatch. 

The Globe story compared what Redman was suggesting to what happened in 1968 when the Pearson government was defeated in the House on a tax bill after the Conservatives caught them off guard and showed up in large numbers for the vote. 

Pearson, who was set to retire later that year, returned from a winter vacation and pleaded with the Conservatives not to force an election because of the potential impact on the Canadian dollar and Canada's reputation internationally. 

Pearson adjourned Parliament and when it resumed put forward a confidence motion that easily passed in the House eight days after the tax bill was defeated. 

Prof. Heard said Pearson was able to argue that the tax bill vote should not defeat the government because it was not a true reflection of the membership of the House. 

However, Prof. Heard is not in an agreement with Prime Minister Paul Martin's decision to ignore the May 10 passage of a Conservative motion recommending his government resign. 

Martin waited nine days before having a vote on two budget bills that passed second reading by the narrowest of margins after he was able to have an opposition MP, Belinda Stronach, defect to his party. 

"This is part of the problem," Prof Heard said. "Constitutional conventions are based on precedents and he's kind of pushed the envelope of what we've seen in the past. And he pushed it in a very large way by refusing to accept that first defeat on May 10 as an actual vote of confidence.

"In my own view it was a clear test of confidence. He was able to kind of bafflegab his way out of it and that is probably the more problematic precedent rather than the nine-day delay he had."

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