Canada's Liberals Keep Power by One Vote

Prime Minister Paul Martin, left, and his Liberal caucus celebrate in House of Commons in Ottawa after the minority government survived a confidence vote.
Prime Minister Paul Martin, left, and his Liberal caucus celebrate in House of Commons in Ottawa after the minority government survived a confidence vote. (By Jim Young -- Reuters)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 20, 2005

OTTAWA, May 19 -- The Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin narrowly survived on Thursday after the speaker of the House of Commons broke a tie vote, averting an early election sought by the opposition Conservatives.

The tie was secured by votes from a maverick independent and from a glamorous heiress, Belinda Stronach, who had switched parties on Tuesday. Stronach cast her vote for Martin's government as her former boyfriend, Conservative strategist Peter MacKay, sat grim-faced across the aisle.

The outcome remained in suspense until the last moment.

"It couldn't have gotten any closer," a relieved Martin said. "We must now move forward in a spirit of cooperation," he said, asking the opposition to join him in a "renewed effort" to make Parliament work.

The vote followed a month-long political drama that has taken on soap-opera dimensions with tales of scandal, a broken heart, secret tape recordings and allegations of political betrayal.

A week ago Martin appeared on the verge of losing his minority-party grip on power, with Liberals shaken by testimony of kickbacks and payoffs in a government-run public relations program. On Tuesday, his position improved when Stronach abruptly abandoned the Conservatives after a late-night dinner with the prime minister.

The vote could sustain Martin's government at least until the end of the year. He has promised to call an election shortly after the completion of the quasi-judicial inquiry into the political corruption scandal, now expected in December or January.

While opponents had sought to portray Martin's government as mired in corruption, the Liberal Party warned that a new election could revive Quebec's latent separatist movement, threatening Canadian unity.

Stronach, 38, said Tuesday that fear had propelled her to switch parties. But the move by the millionaire political rookie, whose romantic life and blond tresses have captivated the tabloid gossips, drew bitter criticism from Conservatives.

In response, other female members of Parliament and editorial writers complained of sexism and misogyny.

MacKay received a standing ovation from Conservative colleagues Thursday for his emotional trials, while Stronach sat unsmiling in her new seat on the Liberal side of the divided chamber.

Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader, criticized as brazen payoffs the cabinet post given to Stronach and the parade of new spending promises made by Martin in recent days.

"The Liberals bought a Pyrrhic victory, one that will sow the seeds of its own destruction," Harper told his party after the vote. "In setting out to win at all costs," he said, the Liberal Party had engineered "an unfortunate result for the country for the moment."

As the vote neared, the divided Parliament was the scene of accusations and intrigue, with a Conservative member saying that he possessed a secretly recorded tape of a Martin operative offering favors in return for help with the vote. Martin bluntly denied it.

The tally eventually came down to the vote of Chuck Cadman, an independent from British Columbia, whose discretion until the Parliament session appeared to border on nonchalance.

"I just feel my vote is my own business until I stand up in the House," Cadman said after voting. "I honestly didn't make up my mind until about a half-hour before."

The votes by Cadman and Stronach on a budget measure that was tantamount to a vote of confidence gave the Liberals the 152 votes needed to tie the Conservatives and their allies on the issue. Speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal, then broke the tie.

After the vote, Martin appealed to Harper to end the barbs and name-calling on both sides. But with an election now likely for early next year, many expect both sides to clash often.

"Tomorrow we go back to work to show Canadians we deserve their confidence," Martin said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company