OTTAWA – The country was left teetering on the brink of election Thursday after all three opposition parties denounced the minority Conservative government’s latest progress report on its economic recovery plan.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said 80 per cent of the plan is already being implemented as the economy shows signs of pulling out of its tailspin. And he appealed to opposition parties not to upset the apple cart.
“The only thing that can get us off course now is needless political instability,” he told a heavily staged town hall meeting in Cambridge, Ont.
But all opposition parties dismissed Harper’s 80 per cent implementation rate as a joke, particularly when it comes to infrastructure funds that are supposed to provide the most immediate economic stimulus.
And two of the three – the NDP and Bloc Quebecois – vowed to vote against the government next Friday, when the latest round of spending estimates in support of the economic recovery plan are put to a confidence vote.
That left the Harper government’s fate squarely in Michael Ignatieff’s hands.
While the Liberal leader was equally critical of the progress report, he said he’ll take time to read it thoroughly before deciding whether it’s bad enough to warrant plunging the country into a summer election only eight months after Canadians last trooped to the polls.
“I think it’s time to take off the rose-coloured glasses and look closely at the numbers,” Ignatieff said in Montreal.
Ignatieff said Liberals are ready for an election but maintained that’s not the real issue.
“The question is what is in the national interest, what do Canadians want here?
“Let’s remember where we are. … We’re in the middle of the most serious recession in a generation, right? What’s the right way forward for our country? That’s the question I’ll be asking myself tonight.”
Liberal insiders said Ignatieff is genuinely torn over what to do and put the chances of him deciding to pull the plug on the government at about 50-50. He is expected to announce his decision Friday or Monday.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty accused the opposition parties of “playing chicken” with each other and predicted there’s a 50 per cent chance they’ll accidentally force a summer election.
If an election is called, Harper made it plain he’ll blame the Liberals for stalling the progress that’s been made on rolling out $22.7 billion in economic stimulus spending, announced in the Jan. 27 budget.
“Fully 80 per cent of our plan’s funding has been committed and is being implemented across this country,” Harper said.
“Some 3,000 individual projects across the country are now getting underway – no small feat only 72 days into a new fiscal year.”
However, Liberal finance critic John McCallum accused the government of using “weasel words” to describe money that’s been “committed” but not necessarily spent.
The Liberals meanwhile produced an Internet slide show showing a dozen examples of infrastructure projects that have yet to break ground even though they were announced as much as two years ago.
Ignatieff said the progress report – the second quarterly report demanded by the Liberals as the price for their support of the budget – can’t be taken at face value. It includes projects that have been repeatedly reannounced without ever actually getting started, he said.
And he pointed out that the country’s mayors have complained that they have yet to see any money.
The touted 80 per cent overall implementation rate includes 100 per cent implementation of things like the home renovation tax credit, although the government has no idea yet how many homeowners may actually take advantage of it.
On infrastructure, the government’s own accounting shows less rosy results.
Only about 42 per cent of the $3.2 billion earmarked this year for the provinces and municipalities has actually been committed, and even less has been spent.
And for infrastructure projects entirely under federal jurisdiction, the number is even lower – 34 per cent of $960 million – with even less spent so far.
Harper released the report at a town hall-style meeting before a friendly audience, moderated by former broadcaster turned Tory senator Mike Duffy. He took no questions from reporters.
Harper said he hasn’t heard from anyone who wants an election this summer. NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe acknowledged the truth of that statement but weren’t deterred by it.
“I don’t think Canadians are all that keen on a fourth election in five years,” conceded Layton.
“But I’ll tell you it’s clear that the government’s direction is the wrong direction. … We’ve always opposed the direction of the Harper government. We won’t change our approach now.”
Duceppe said his party will not support an economic plan it believes is wrong just to avoid an election. He was particularly critical of Harper’s refusal to ease access to employment insurance, although the prime minister did promise some unspecified changes to the system in the fall.
“People have problems now, not next fall.”
The report also put a hard number on this year’s deficit: $50.2 billion.
The Conservative government had forecast a $34-billion shortfall for 2009-2010 before Flaherty admitted late last month that the deficit had ballooned to more than $50 billion.
Although the deficit is significant, it is affordable, the prime minister said.