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Tories, NDP and Bloc unite to demand more clout

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Ottawa — The three federal opposition leaders bared their fangs Thursday, serving notice on Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority government that they now have the power in the House of Commons and will make changes to next month's Throne Speech if they don't like what they hear.

Denying they are playing a game of chicken with the Martin government, the opposition troika has also sent a letter to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, asking her to consult with them should the Prime Minister request that Parliament be dissolved and an election called.

Their demands are part of a proposed package of substantive changes to the way the Commons operates and provide the first glimpse at the extent of co-operation between the three parties and the challenges Mr. Martin could face getting his agenda through.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton outlined the package Thursday during a news conference in Ottawa.

One of the most provocative proposed changes calls for a new and narrow definition of what constitutes a no-confidence motion that could result in the defeat of the government.

Under the proposed package, only the final votes on the Throne Speech and the budget, and votes on the main spending estimates could topple the government.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien was criticized for declaring many of his votes ones of confidence, which some said was a way to control his caucus. Mr. Martin has reduced the number of confidence votes.

But the opposition fears that the Liberals could use a defeat on a confidence vote as a way of going to the polls. “I would not want the Prime Minister to think that he could simply fail in the House of Commons as a route to another general election,” Mr. Harper said.

Meanwhile, Liberal deputy House leader Mauril Belanger says it's not up to the opposition to “define what confidence is” and cautioned that the proposed changes may have constitutional implications. He also warned that the opposition cannot amend a Throne Speech without consequences.

“You can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can't defeat the government and not expect to have to go to the people,” Mr. Belanger said. “These are things that are going to have to be talked about and negotiated. But generally speaking, we are not going to see the government lose confidence for the sake of a comma in the Speech from the Throne.

“But a core message and a core value and core commitment, that's a different story.”

He is slated to meet with members of the opposition next week to discuss the proposed changes.

The opposition leaders also want their MPs to be able to vote on the ratification of international treaties and troop deployment. They are demanding, too, that all opposition motions be put to a vote, that two new House committees — one on women's issues and another on access to information — be created and that committees have more power to vet senior appointments.

On Thursday, they said they are not trying to govern as a coalition. Rather, they are finding ways to co-operate on House procedure. They plan to pass the package of proposed changes when the House resumes sitting in October.

Co-operation on policy will be more difficult, they said, and they played down speculation on whether they would want to try to govern if the government fell.

“I think it's important off the bat that the opposition parties not be divided on issues of process,” Mr. Harper said. “We know full well that we'll be divided on some of the issues of substance that we will vote on later.”

The three leaders have spoken several times since the June 28 election. In the vote, the Liberals won 135 seats, while the combined opposition forces captured 173.

There is a “general agreement that Canadian politics needs to be cleaned up,” Mr. Layton said.

The NDP Leader asked, too, why the government should “control the agenda of the House of Commons” when “it didn't receive the majority of votes from Canadians and it didn't receive the majority of seats?”

Mr. Layton and Mr. Harper threatened to make amendments to the Oct. 5 Throne Speech if the government does not consult with them and put together an agenda that they could support.

“Ultimately there will be a vote on the Speech from the Throne and that is a confidence measure. But if the government doesn't choose to consult the opposition parties on its program, I think it will inevitably face amendments, some of which may be successful,” Mr. Harper said.

He said, however, that he believes Canadians want “this Parliament to work well.”

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