C-474 outcome not surprising but Liberal disorganization certainly was

In the days following the surprise House of Commons vote last week that abruptly ended public hearings on bill C-474, supporters of the bill aimed their frustration at the Conservatives.

Government MPs voted as a block and their 139 votes were enough to defeat by four votes a request from the agriculture committee to extend the committee study for 30 days, a motion that came out of the committee because the combined opposition have a majority.

The bill, sponsored by New Democrat Alex Atamanenko and requiring that a market harm analysis be completed before any new genetically modified variety is approved, will go to a final quick debate and vote in the Commons, perhaps before year end.

It will be defeated.

“Conservatives shut down debate on biotech harm to farmers,” said a statement from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

“Conservatives abandon farmers for big biotech,” said Atamanenko in his condemnation of the vote.

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It is correct that the Conservatives wanted to close the public debate on the bill. They said the fact that it had been approved in principle by opposition MPs in the Commons had destabilized the biotech industry and scared away investment.

They want to hold more general hearings on the biotechnology industry but not with the possibility that legislation could be passed.

Saskatchewan Conservative Randy Hoback, one of the lead critics of the Atamanenko bill, argued it raised an important issue about market acceptance of GM products but its vague requirements for market impact assessment were flawed.

So the Conservatives signaled from the beginning that they oppose C-474, arguing farmers do not want a politicized regulatory system.

Their vote was no surprise. What was surprising is that the Liberals did not receive more of the blame from C-474 supporters for its defeat because they were the authors of the vote’s outcome. Votes by the minority Conservative government could not have carried the day.

More than a dozen Liberal MPs did not show up for the vote, including leader Michael Ignatieff. Those no-shows made the difference. Liberals present voted for the extension, as they had at committee, but not enough showed up.

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From the beginning, the Liberal stand was odd: supporting the hearings and voting for the bill at second reading but vowing that once the hearings were over, they would make sure the bill was defeated.

In the end, they couldn’t even deliver on that convoluted stand.

A good part of the reason was that another private member’s on creating an ethical code of conduct for Canadian mining companies operating abroad also came up for a vote Oct. 27. Many Liberal MPs from resource ridings did not want to risk alienating their voters by supporting that bill, so they stayed away.

But the votes were almost half an hour apart. They could have shown up for C-474 and then slipped away.

Was it a lack of discipline or just disorganization?

Agriculture critic Wayne Easter said it was “embarrassing” for the party.

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At the very least, it was one more example of the Liberal caucus saying one thing and doing another.