Sparring MPs, shifting sides, a scathing report: Can a federal election be far behind?

Sparring MPs, shifting sides, a scathing report: Can a federal election be far behind?
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Any premise the health and economic crisis created by COVID-19 is the preoccupation of Parliament vanished Thursday with a series of cascading events: allegations the Liberals’ entire agenda is being deliberately driven off the rails, a scathing ethics report, an MP crossing the floor and oh, the story of Louis Riel.

Can an election be far off?

The Liberals’ House Leader Pablo Rodriguez, who controls the legislative agenda, insisted that’s not what’s happening, at least on their end. All his government wants, he stressed in a morning news conference, was to pass a trio of “progressive” bills crucial to the nation, and which he said the Tories are deliberately trying to stop.

“We don’t want an election. We want bills,” he said.

Rodriguez threatened to use all the parliamentary tools at his disposable to end the stalling, though with a minority he’d need the support of another party to do that.

And even as his words were still hanging in the air the Conservatives began to gum up the day’s agenda, with a mischievous call for a vote on the House to adjourn.

It failed, but the political drama didn’t end.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett rose to his feet for an oration that took up nearly an hour, reaching back into the annals of parliamentary history to tell tales of those — including Louis Riel — who once upon a time failed to show up at the House of Commons and suffered consequences.

The context? His argument that his rights as an MP were compromised, and that the government was in contempt with its refusal to allow certain witnesses to testify before a committee probing the WE Charity affair.

Barrett’s point of privilege followed the tabling Thursday of the long-awaited report by the Commons’ ethics committee into how the youth empowerment group won a contract to run a COVID-19 student grant program and to what extent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau’s personal connections with the charity may have helped that along.

The ethics commissioner cleared Trudeau of any ethics breach — though he didn’t clear Morneau — but the opposition MPs on the committee were having none of that.

“This report is about what happens when friends of the government, Liberal insiders, get access where they shouldn’t have access,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said.

The report made sweeping recommendations the Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc say would help clean up the procurement process, and also toughen up the ethics requirements for cabinet ministers.

The government’s under no obligation to act, and even if it wanted to, there’s little room left on the calendar to add anything else to the pile.

Nine sitting days remain before the Commons adjourns for summer, a period of time often referred to as silly season as MPs reach the end of their ropes in dealing with each other, though this year most have spent more time staring through screens than physically sitting in the Commons.

One MP Thursday decided she’s switching that seat; the Greens’ Jenica Atwin announced she’s leaving her party and going to the Liberals.

She cited infighting lately in the Green party as one of the reasons.

“It’s been really difficult to focus on the work that needs to be done on behalf of my constituents,” she told a news conference in her hometown of Fredericton, N.B.

The Liberals must hold on to as many seats as they can in the Atlantic Provinces come election time, and that one was a strong three-way fight in 2019. Picking up Atwin was certainly a political win.

But her departure is a clear loss for relatively new Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who has struggled to get momentum going for her party and to bridge a major ideological gap internally over the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
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