Nova Scotia Tory MP defies government, votes against budget bill
June 5, 2007 at 7:32 PM EDT
OTTAWA — The Conservative government scrambled in vain to avert an embarrassing political spectacle as one of its own opposed a federal budget implementation bill in a preliminary vote on Tuesday night.
Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey says the bill — which sets the March 19 budget into action — breaks a promise by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to his home province on resource revenue.
He joined the Liberals and the NDP in opposing adoption of the bill at report stage, but it still passed 158-108 with the Bloc Quebecois supporting the Conservatives.
Mr. Casey vowed to vote No again later this week when the bill goes to third and final reading in the House of Commons unless there are changes allowing Nova Scotia to reap the full benefit of its offshore oil and gas wealth without losing any equalization payments.
Finance Minister Jiom Flaherty responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Monday. (Tom Hanson/CP)
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Mr. Casey risks being kicked out of the Tory caucus but he said he must vote his conscience and hopes for a compromise before the final vote.
“If it's put back or they tell me they're going to put it back, I'll vote with them.”
Asked what his defiance means for his future with the Conservatives, he answered: ”I have no idea.”
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty met with Mr. Casey late Monday in attempt to reach a compromise, and then held another high-level meeting Tuesday. But Mr. Casey was not invited to that meeting and said he has heard nothing that would prompt him to back down.
“I feel very strongly about this,” he said after talking with Mr. Flaherty in the House.
“I wish I didn't have to make this decision, but if the accord is not put back I'm voting against the budget.”
On the surface, the government appeared in no mood to bargain following repeated attacks by the NDP and Liberals during question period. The opposition parties accused the Conservatives of going back on an election promise not to touch the offshore agreements that exempt Nova Scotia and Newfoundland from a clawback on equalization.
A lot of Conservative backbenchers are “squirming,” said NDP Leader Jack Layton, who shouted above catcalls from the government side.
“At least they have a moment of reflection about whether they should honour the promise that they made to the voters in the last election.”
The government dug in its heels and denied it had broken its word.
“We are keeping our promise on the budget,” insisted government House leader Peter Van Loan, who rhymed off a laundry list of national programs the Tories are funding as part of the fiscal plan.
“In addition to protecting and fully meeting our commitment to respect the offshore accord, we are also providing things are that are benefiting real families in Nova Scotia.”
The gulf between Mr. Casey and his party quickly widened Tuesday night as senior Conservative officials pointed out that the Parliamentary veteran had supported the government in previous votes on the March 19 budget. They even provided a short list of quotes from Nova Scotia newspapers documenting his praise.
Mr. Flaherty rebuffed calls to amend the legislation, saying the Conservatives have honoured their promise to fix the fiscal imbalance in the country and the provinces will benefit.
But the Conservatives have taken a beating over the issue in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Tory MPs there are feeling the pain.
Mr. Casey and Newfoundland Tory MP Norm Doyle had a brief, grim-faced huddle with Mr. Flaherty following question period, said MPs who watched from their seats.
The offshore accord was negotiated with former prime minister Paul Martin in the waning hours of the 2004 election campaign and was heralded in both Atlantic provinces as an avenue to shed their have-not status.
The latest federal budget forces the provinces to choose between their agreements and a newly revised equalization formula. Since it means more cash in the short-term, Nova Scotia opted in its recent budget to take the new revenue-sharing scheduled proposed by Flaherty.
Calls to Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald went unanswered Tuesday night, but Saskatchewan's Lorne Calvert was full of praise for the maverick Tory.
“The question many people in Saskatchewan are asking, including myself is: where are our members of Parliament?” Mr. Calvert said in a telephone interview.
“Where is the courage to stand up for their province?”
Although the Prairie province does not have a signed deal the way its counterparts do, it still stands to lose because the new equalization formula does not properly address resource revenues, said Mr. Calvert.
The Opposition Liberals clearly enjoyed the spectacle of seeing one of the longest serving Tories break ranks and anticipating Mr. Casey's ouster from caucus, signalled that he would be welcome with them, just as former Conservatives Belinda Stronach and Scott Brison were embraced.
“As an MP, it's a very difficult situation to vote against the budget of your own government. You've gotta have guts and I'm proud of him,” said fellow Nova Scotian Mark Eyking.
Asked if Liberals would accept Mr. Casey into their fold, Mr. Eyking said: “Oh, sure would. He's very like-minded to us. He's welcome aboard any time.”
Back room negotiations, involving Nova Scotia and federal finance officials, to defuse the simmering conflict have yielded “some progress,” a provincial official said Tuesday.
But it was clearly not enough for Mr. Casey, who said four different proposals to satisfy the province's concerns have been floated since the budget and all of them were unacceptable.
The provincial official declined to say what sort of compromise might be in the offing.