OTTAWA – Stephen Harper and Jack Layton took the first tentative steps Thursday in a political dance that could decide if the country is headed for a fall election.
The prime minister and the NDP leader both said they want Parliament to work, but each looked to the other to take the lead.
Layton said it’s up to Harper to “reach out” to the opposition if he wants to save his minority government and avoid an election. And he said the prime minister must understand he can’t behave as if he has a majority.
“The ball is entirely in Stephen Harper’s court,” Layton told reporters in Halifax.
The NDP has prided itself on consistently voting against the government and has mocked the Liberals for continually propping it up.
But New Democrats have been sounding a more conciliatory tone since Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff declared Tuesday that he will try to bring down the government at the first available opportunity after Parliament resumes Sept. 14.
With the Liberals on the war path, the Tories will need the support of the NDP or Bloc Quebecois to survive.
Layton said his preference is to avoid an election, which he said Canadians don’t want. But he didn’t sound particularly optimistic that Harper will rise to the challenge.
“I guess that remains to be seen. So far we’ve been disappointed at that sense that there’s an unwillingness to reach out and work with opposition parties.
“If that changes, then he will be making a decision that opens the possibility that we might not have an election.”
Layton, who met with the prime minister last month, said Harper knows the proposals the NDP has put before the House of Commons and it’s time for him to “show some leadership” and make Parliament work.
Specifically, he wants Harper to show willingness to move on NDP motions to extend EI benefits, protect pensions, and regulate credit card rates.
Layton said the NDP is ready to fight an election if Harper doesn’t compromise.
Earlier Thursday, Harper said he’s willing to consider “good effective, affordable ideas” from the opposition to help the economy. But he insisted he won’t make any “backroom deals.”
Layton said he’s not offering a backroom deal, noting that he was laying out his position at a televised news conference.
Harper also raised the spectre of an opposition coalition – a ploy tried by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc last December to replace the government, which proved massively unpopular.
He went so far as to suggest the coalition agreement among the opposition parties is still in effect, even though the pact imploded last January when Ignatieff decided Liberals would support the Tory budget.
“We already know those guys have a deal and I don’t want to get into that kind of game, ” Harper said in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ont
Layton said categorically that the coalition is dead.
Harper repeated the Tory refrain that an election would jeopardize the fragile economic recovery, even though economists have said it would have little impact.
And he went further, suggesting opposition parties want to force an election before Conservatives get any credit for the rebound.
Liberal MP Bob Rae accused the Tories of floating “bizarre” ideas and pooh-poohed the claim that an election would create instability, noting that elections are a normal part of democracy.
“There’s an effort here on the part of the Conservatives to create an atmosphere of total instability,” he said.
“Well, you know, we’re not a banana republic. We have votes. Mr. Harper’s not a generalissimo yet. He has to get used to living in a constitutional democracy.”
Rae said there’s no reason an election need disrupt Harper’s plans to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 16 or to attend the G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24.
The latest polls suggest an election now would result in another minority government – either for the Tories or the Liberals.
The surveys put the two parties in a dead heat, with the Liberals well ahead of the Tories in vote-rich Ontario and Quebec.