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February 14, 2001

Lincoln refuses to vote with fellow Liberals

Jane Taber
National Post

Dave Chan, National Post
Clifford Lincoln, right, and his assistant Francis Scarpaleggia return to his office after question period.

When Clifford Lincoln first ran as a Member of Parliament in 1993, he thought the worst possible scenario would be to end up a backbencher. The nightmare came true. This week, the National Post follows the Liberal MP to discover what occupies a backbencher.


Clifford Lincoln had an unsettling day yesterday. And this morning he will have to face his Liberal colleagues at the weekly caucus meeting after refusing to vote with them on a crucial motion of confidence. The reception may be chilly.

Last evening, after struggling with his decision, and keeping his own counsel, Mr. Lincoln, the 72-year-old MP for the Montreal-area riding of Lac-Saint-Louis, was one of only four Liberal MPs who abstained on a tricky motion brought forward by the Canadian Alliance. The CA had tried to invoke the Liberals' own election promise from 1993 to appoint an independent ethics counsellor who would report to the House of Commons.

Though he did not take the ultimate step of voting with the Opposition, the abstention spoke volumes: "I abstained on the Alliance motion as I feel they're playing small politics with the issue, which they have never brought forward in any motion since 1993," he said last night after the vote. "Yet, I hope to see an independent ethics commissioner in the future."

No overt pressure was put on Mr. Lincoln to support his government. In fact, Marlene Catterall, the chief government whip, said she had spoken to several of her MPs who were having some problems with how to vote, but Mr. Lincoln was not one of them.

He said he backs the government on most issues. "On some issues, if you feel your convictions or beliefs go against the government ... I don't see why we shouldn't be able to express it freely."

He says he has never been disciplined for sticking to his principles, and if the higher powers believe you feel deeply about an issue, and vote your conscience quietly, you will not be punished. But if you boast about it you will.

"You've got to do it in a way that's as subtle as you can make it, and as delicate and as quiet as you can make it. And if that's the case then they don't like it of course but they won't take sanctions."

True to his words, Mr. Lincoln did not stop to scrum after the vote; the others did.

Earlier in the day, however, Mr. Lincoln did exactly what his government wanted him to do, although he didn't agree with it: It was just after 10:30 a.m. and the members were being called in for a time allocation vote that would shut down debate on the very first bill the Liberals had introduced, a bill involving changes to the Employment Insurance Act.

The vote began, and Mr. Lincoln stood in his place and sided with his government. At that moment he was behaving exactly as a government backbencher should: Stand up, shut up and be counted.

"I don't quite believe in time allocation as a principle but ... I'm independent of the system to the degree to which I can be," he said. "You can't be extreme and marginalize yourself to the point where you have no credibility amongst your peers. Then they don't listen to you. So I divide my thinking into slots. There are issues that are big where I choose to make a stand because I consider there are large policy issues."

Mr. Lincoln was on House duty this day. He had to stay in the Commons until question period ended. Between votes he used the time in the government members lobby, which runs parallel to the chamber, to sign letters and talk to his legislative assistant, Francis Scarpaleggia.

He and Irwin Cotler, another Liberal MP from Montreal and a human rights expert, met in the lobby. The two discussed ways in which the country could further honour Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Second World War. He also met with representatives from Greenpeace to talk about organic agriculture.

Question period begins at 2 p.m. and it is brutal for government backbenchers, especially independent-minded ones such as Mr. Lincoln. They are merely the backdrop for the main event -- the swordplay between the opposition MPs and the Liberal front bench.

On this day, Mr. Lincoln was signing letters. Some days he does The New York Times crossword puzzle, which he says gets a little more difficult on each successive day.

At 3:15 p.m., question period is over, and Mr. Lincoln is sprung from House duty. He is stopped by a reporter, and asked how he will vote that night. He politely tells him to watch the vote, and moves on.

Mr. Lincoln was pre-occupied. In a few minutes he will be asked to convince a committee of six MPs -- two Liberals and one each from the opposition parties -- why his private member's bill on protecting human health and the environment by eliminating the gasoline additive MMT should be allowed to come to a vote in the Commons. He has five minutes.

He presented his case, and then took questions. A former provincial environment minister in Quebec, Mr. Lincoln knows the environment file and is committed to this bill. Yet, it is difficult to gauge how it went, and he would not speculate for fear of hurting his chances. He must now wait until Friday for the committee's decision.

And in several hours, he would have made his decision on whether to support his government. That was Tuesday for Mr. Lincoln.

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