MONTREAL - Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says Canadians need another election like a "hole in the head," but his party is still prepared to defeat next week's federal budget and potentially shuffle voters back to the polls.
He warned Wednesday that the Conservative budget must protect the poor, stabilize the country's flagging employment situation and create jobs for the future to earn Liberal support.
Ignatieff, who met with business and labour leaders in Montreal, also said Prime Minister Stephen Harper must refrain from attacking labour laws.
"We need an election in February like a hole in the head," he told a news conference inside the headquarters of Quebec's largest labour federation.
"It's not the preferred choice of Canadians."
If opposition parties vote down Tuesday's budget, the coalition deal struck last month between the Liberals and New Democrats - propped up by the Bloc Quebecois - remains a better option for the Governor General, Ignatieff said.
"A coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition, meaning that I need to look at this budget carefully," said the Liberal leader, whose party could decide the fate of Harper's minority government.
"I think the Canadian public demands that I give him one last chance to win back the confidence of the Commons."
The federal budget is expected to run a deficit by including measures to stimulate the economy. Harper has hinted there will also be tax cuts for the middle class.
Ignatieff said he prefers tax cuts targeted to poorer Canadians instead of broad-based reductions aimed at the middle class.
He said the kind of cuts Harper has been talking about run the risk of creating a structural deficit and reducing debt rather than stimulating much-needed consumption.
Labour boss Michel Arsenault, who shared the stage with Ignatieff at the news conference, echoed the Liberal leader's remarks on cutting taxes.
"People who are going to be laid off will not pay taxes," said Arsenault, head of the Quebec Federation of Labour.
"We need somebody who believes that government has to reinvest in infrastructure, has to reinvest in the economy."
Arsenault also said the federal government should fund training programs to ensure that laid-off Canadians get back in the workforce.
He said his organization wants a pragmatic leader running the country during a crisis, rather than Harper, who he described as "dogmatic."
Arsenault doubts the government will present a budget that meets Ignatieff's conditions.
"I'm not the leader of the Opposition ... but I'm sure that he's going to find many good reasons to form the next government, as a coalition government," he said.
Harper said earlier this week that he shares Liberal views on certain issues, such as spending to stimulate the sputtering economy and avoiding a lasting deficit.
"There are certainly broad aspects of what the Liberal party is saying that we can agree with," the prime minister said Monday after meeting with business leaders in Halifax.
Liberal insiders have said Ignatieff would prefer not to trigger an election while he rebuilds the party.
He has also been unenthusiastic about forming a coalition government, which opinion polls suggest is a popular notion in Quebec, but largely rejected in the rest of Canada.
Later on Wednesday, Ignatieff fielded questions from MBA students and professors at the HEC Montreal business school.
Liberal finance critic Scott Brison, who watched Ignatieff's appearance at the university, said he has no idea if Harper will present a budget palatable to his party.
"Stephen Harper has surprised us before when he brought in an economic statement that was offensive in its lack of economic vision and its divisiveness at a time when Canadians need unity - and we can't predict he won't try that again," Brison said.
"I hope he rises to the occasion this time, but it's tough to trust that he will."