OTTAWA - The NDP says it will prop up Stephen Harper's minority government long enough to pass legislation to help unemployed workers - a decision that all but rules out an election this fall.

MP Thomas Mulcair said Wednesday that the New Democrats will support the Conservatives on a crucial budget vote Friday.

And he indicated the NDP will continue to back the government on other confidence votes provided that promised employment insurance reforms prove to be as generous as billed - almost $1 billion in extended benefits to about 190,000 long-term workers.

"We're not going to do anything that will block that money from flowing immediately to the people who need that help," Mulcair said.

Until now, Harper has been able to rely on support from the Liberals for his government's survival. But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff served notice two weeks ago that his party will take the earliest opportunity to topple the government, putting the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in the awkward position of determining Harper's fate.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe announced Tuesday that his party will also support Friday's budget motion, which paves the way for implementation of the popular home renovation tax credit, among other measures.

But Duceppe made it clear the Bloc will not support the Conservatives if presented with a motion asking if MPs still have confidence in the government. The Liberals intend to put just such a confidence test to the House of Commons sometime during the first week of October.

Mulcair said it's premature to speculate on how the NDP will vote on the Liberal motion, which it has not yet seen. But he repeated that New Democrats are "going to make sure that money flows" to the unemployed and he pointed out that an election would disrupt the flow of money.

The NDP could still yank its support for the government if the EI reforms don't live up to advance billing. Mulcair said the party intends to examine the legislation with a fine-tooth comb once it's sent to a Commons committee for study.

NDP Leader Jack Layton refused to speculate on how long the truce between the Tories and New Democrats might last.

He indicated the party won't put up with lengthy delays in passing the EI legislation.

"There are ways in which you can move things quickly and there are ways in which you can drag your feet forever," he said.

"We're certainly not going to accept the latter and we're going to be looking for the former."

Layton has previously warned that Harper could yet provoke an election if he decides to introduce some new measure that's anathema to all three opposition parties.

Still, in the space of a few days, the chances of a fall election have gone to remote from almost certain.

The decision to prop up the government has been difficult for the NDP, which has prided itself until now on never once supporting the Tories on a confidence matter. New Democrats used to delight in calling the Liberals weak and unprincipled for their support of the government.

NDP officials insist the party is financially and organizationally prepared to fight an election if need be.

But they are apparently spooked by public opinion polls suggesting the party is trailing badly in Ontario and getting squeezed in British Columbia. The two provinces account for 70 per cent of the NDP's 36 seats.

Mulcair tried to put the best face on Wednesday's turnabout, arguing that the NDP was able to wring EI concessions out of Harper.

"We're ready for an election but we've always said that what we want is to get results for Canadians and that's what we've obtained now - something the Liberals were never able to do."

Layton put it this way: "We think $1 billion for the unemployed is a wiser course of action at this moment than a third of a billion dollars on an election, that's for sure."

Liberals scoffed at the new NDP-Tory alliance.

"I think the NDP showed today that they're for sale and not for a very high price," said Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc.

"I think if (former leader) Tommy Douglas were alive today, he'd be very, very ashamed of the NDP leadership of Jack Layton.

New Democratic Party deputy leader and finance critic Thomas Mulcair speaks to media following the NDP caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., Wednesday September 16, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick


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