OTTAWA – The ceasefire between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff has erased a summer election from the calendar, but party troops are circling November as a distinct possibility for the next federal vote.
The prime minister and the Liberal leader emerged from talks Wednesday with a deal to end their political showdown, highlighted by the creation of a panel to look at changes to employment insurance.
Both men spouted make-terms such as “good faith” and “common ground,” waxing on about wanting the minority Parliament to work. But behind the scenes the election plotting continued as before – with a bit more prep time.
The unusual discussions between the leaders were spurred by an election showdown after Ignatieff demanded answers to key questions on EI, the ballooning deficit, stimulus spending, and the medical isotope crisis.
The pair emerged – separately – to announce a six-member working group to examine possible changes to EI, including extending coverage to the self-employed and making the eligibility threshold more uniform across the country.
The group, formed by three members selected by each leader, is to report back to Parliament by Sept. 28. At least four of the members will be MPs.
While the panel comes up with recommendations over the summer, the parties will be putting their fundraising and organizational machines into overdrive for an election most politicians now expect this fall.
As part of the deal, Harper agreed to produce another economic report card to the House of Commons the last week of September. Whatever deficit and stimulus spending data that is contained in the report could form the basis of an election issue for the Liberals.
And Harper agreed to give the Liberals an opposition day motion within eight days of the start of the fall session of Parliament-a key opportunity to trigger an election that could occur as early as November 2.
In exchange, Ignatieff agreed not to vote against the government Friday when the supplementary budget estimates come up in the Commons. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois have said they will vote against the government.
Both Harper and Ignatieff hailed the agreement as a good day for parliamentary co-operation.
“The good news we have today for people is that the breakthrough we actually have is a willingness of the government and the Official Opposition to work together on an important public policy matter,” Harper said.
“I think it’s always preferable that parties work together in these difficult times and that’s what Canadians want.”
Ignatieff said he simply did his job by holding the government to account.
“We have found a way to make progress for Canadians on EI and we’ve found a way to make this government accountable and I feel that this is a good day for our country,” he said.
“But more importantly, it’s a good day also for this system of Parliament.”
The tone was strangely cordial during question period in the House of Commons, with the two men asking and answering straight questions without the usual cutting rhetoric.
It was more partisan behind closed doors.
As Ignatieff began a press conference in Parliament’s Hall of Honour, the Conservative caucus cheered and shouted behind a nearby closed-door caucus meeting for all to hear.
An internal memo circulated amongst Conservatives declared victory over Ignatieff.
“The Liberals have reversed themselves on EI reform (their 360-hour demand has been abandoned) and withdrawn the threat to force an unnecessary summer election,” the memo said, referring to Ignatieff’s push for a 360-hour EI eligibility threshold across the country.
“Instead, the Liberals will vote for the next round of stimulus in our Economic Action Plan.”
Liberal insiders said they are now in full preparation for a fall election. The temporary truce with Harper gives Ignatieff the chance to fill the party coffers and spend more time targeting ridings that are possible wins, they said.
Many hawks around Ignatieff had pushed the leader to simply vote against the government this week and trigger an election. Ignatieff is unlikely to let another election possibility pass him by, without running the risk of looking like he’s running scared.
“Do I look like I’ve been steamrolled?” Ignatieff sniffed, when a reporter asked about the optics of Wednesday’s deal.
Harper bragged to reporters Wednesday that his party is most prepared to fight an election – just a matter of turning the key in the ignition, as one of his aides put it.
But polls suggest support for the Conservatives is slumping, most alarmingly in Quebec and the vote-rich suburban Toronto area.
And Harper’s future would be in serious question if he loses seats in the next election – which would be his fourth without a majority.
The Bloc Quebecois and NDP could only sit back and ridicule their main opponent: the Liberals.
They both attacked Ignatieff for not ensuring changes to EI were made this summer, rather than the fall. Ignatieff had originally said Harper not hold off bringing more people onto the rolls.
“What will happen to those unemployed this summer, they have nothing, they’ll lose everything. They won’t be able to feed themselves,” said Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.
“So what’s the change today? They’ll wait until Mr. Ignatieff is serious?”
NDP Leader Jack Layton said the deal is “cold comfort to the 1.5 million unemployed Canadians dealing with a deeply flawed EI system.”
“Ignatieff did nothing to fix EI, nothing to create jobs, nothing to stimulate the economy.”