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Tories fear voting showdown may exhaust more than just their MPs

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is applauded as he stands to vote on the budget bill C38 Thursday June 14, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - After almost 24 hours of bobbing up and down in their seats for votes on the government's budget bill, there's no doubt Conservatives MPs are tired.

But government MPs and cabinet ministers are also expressing private concerns they'll come out of the showdown over Bill C-38 having exhausted some of their political capital as well.

Conversations with Conservative caucus members conducted on condition they would not be quoted suggest MPs are hearing complaints from Tory voters in their ridings about the government's bundling several measures into a budget bill that have nothing directly to do with the nation's finances.

Those complaints may start anew in a few months.

Now that the government's spring budget implementation bill is one step closer to royal assent, it will turn its attention to whether it should employ the exact same omnibus strategy in the fall when it brings in the customary autumn budget implementation bill.

The Conservatives' budget bills have been creeping up in size and scope since they took over the government in 2006, so if past trends are any indication, the fall bill could be even bigger than the one that's been the subject of a marathon debate on the Commons this week.

Or at least it might have been.

Pushback from within the Conservative caucus over Bill C-38 could pop the prime minister's penchant for knitting together disparate pieces of legislation using the single thread that it's all needed for the current economy.

The Jobs, Growth and Long Term Prosperity Act clocks in at over 400 pages and changes nearly four dozen laws ranging from rules for charities to oversight of Canada's spy agency.

Major opposition has come to changes being made to environmental assessments, old age security, employment insurance and fisheries regulation and it hasn't just flown from the political opposition to Stephen Harper but from within his ranks.

Both Mulroney-era Conservatives and a recent Tory cabinet minister lashed out at changes being made on the environment front.

Meanwhile, grassroots Conservatives at the riding association level have written letters expressing their own scorn.

A single crack in the Conservative caucus could quickly become a schism, notes UBC political science professor Max Cameron and the environmental changes in the budget could be the chisel.

"I cannot believe that of the 39 per cent of Canadians who voted for the Conservatives, there aren't a lot of them who care about the environment and they've got to be wondering," said Cameron.

"If you start to see the base itself divide, does that bring pressure on members in the caucus and could you imagine a caucus revolt?...

"It's pretty dramatic stuff and that's the problem. The current leadership is not prepared to provide the space within which these things can be negotiated."

That became obvious when current Tory MP David Wilks expressed his own concerns recently about how the bill was put together.

In excerpts of a recent meeting with his B.C. constituents posted on YouTube, Wilks addressed the extent to which backbenchers have a say in government policy.

“It certainly concerns some of us backbenchers. The decisions are made predominantly by cabinet and then they come back to us informing us how this is going to move forward,” he said.

"But at the end of the day, in my opinion, they have made up their mind."

But the prime minister is known for not having a completely tin ear and paying attention when his caucus tells him there is an issue percolating at the grassroots level that needs to be handled.

A flare-up in caucus over the government's online surveillance bill saw that piece of legislation shoved right to the back burner.

The question for the party is whether the furor over Bill C-38 is a flash in the pan created by the drama of the voting showdown or the start of a narrative that won't have a happy ending for the Tories.

"The danger isn't that the opposition is going to bring you down, because you're a majority government. They can't do that," said Cameron.

"But what could happen is you shoot yourself in the foot. You make dumb mistakes, you govern badly, you do things that alienate even your own rank and file, you create a mood in the country that's just against you."

Some Conservative strategists say what anger there is will blow out faster than candles on a birthday cake.

Conservative strategist Geoff Norquay notes that the Liberals tried to run their 2011 election campaign on issues relating to governance.

"That did not work out well for the Liberals," he said.

"A year later we are back to the same issue: the government is talking about the economy and the opposition is back to process, not substance."

But another points out that in political circles it was former NDP leader Jack Layton's process-oriented jab at then Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff for not showing up for votes that's partially credited with turning the tide orange in that campaign.

"Conservatives get accused of “playing to their base” all the time, and to me that’s all this is, only from the opposite side, trying to solidify a wide but shallow support base," said the strategist.

"For the NDP, this is mostly about establishing more bona fides as a party that will stand against the government."

Senior Conservative party leaders will be keeping a close ear to the ground on the summer BBQ circuit, testing the waters to see to what extent they may need to scale back omnibus tactics.

That can't come soon enough for some political scientists.

"It reduces the House of Commons to making noises and rubber stamping," said Queen's University political science professor Ned Franks of the growing use of omnibus budget implementation bills.

"I consider these bills and the form they come to Parliament and the length of them an affront to parliamentary procedure and practice," he added.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2012
The Canadian Press

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