Federal parties will fight for upper hand as Parliament returns

OTTAWA - Consider the week ahead in Parliament a trailer to the fall blockbuster that's about to be released, a sort of loud, tense collection of soundbytes competing for the public's attention and affection.

OTTAWA - Consider the week ahead in Parliament a trailer to the fall blockbuster that's about to be released, a sort of loud, tense collection of soundbytes competing for the public's attention and affection.

Parliament might fall in five short days if a vote of confidence is held Friday as is expected. Senior Conservative sources say Sept. 18 is the day tentatively marked on the calendar to bring forward the infamous ways and means motion that could bring down the government, although party strategists are keeping any options open that will give them the tactical advantage.

All four parties are obsessed with positioning themselves in the best possible light before the campaign unfolds.

The Liberals unveiled two new television ads Sunday, both attempting to show that party leader Michael Ignatieff has what it takes to not only lead the country out of recession, but to go beyond that by restructuring the workforce for better times ahead.

The English-language ad promises the Liberals would "do better" than the Conservatives on the economy while the French ad touts Ignatieff as a leader with a global viewpoint from his experience working abroad.

The Tories planned to unveil proposed changes to the Employment Insurance system as early as Monday, said the prime minister's spokesman Dimitri Soudas.

While the Conservatives were closely guarding details of the plan, reports over the weekend indicated the government was preparing to lengthen the amount of time some workers can collect benefits, and to extend EI to the self-employed on an optional basis.

NDP Leader Jack Layton was to put himself under the spotlight first thing Monday, with a caucus meeting in front of the cameras on Parliament Hill to lay out what his party intends to do this parliamentary session.

They would like to project the image of a party that has the interests of Canadians at heart, that is not fixated on its own political advancement. "The door is still open" to working together, Layton is expected to tell his MPs.

"What lies before us continues to be an opportunity, although it's a fading one I'm sad to say, to try to get Parliament working for people rather than all this attention to partisan advantage, and getting a bigger caucus than your caucus," Layton said in an interview.

Layton's party is in perhaps the most delicate position.

With the Liberals having declared they will no longer support the government, and the Bloc seemingly indifferent to an election, the NDP is the only party left that could keep the minority Parliament afloat.

Layton and his team will have to carefully weigh the EI reforms the government puts on the table, and gauge whether it is more damaging to its credibility to support the right-of-centre government or defeat it.

The NDP's polling numbers have not been stellar over the summer, and an election could cost them seats.

Layton insists that's not his main concern.

"We're not so preoccupied with how big our caucus is, as some of these other leaders seem to be."

The Conservatives must also manoeuvre carefully through the first week.

Their overarching message continues to be one of the steady hand on the economic wheel, that it is a precarious time for the opposition to bring down the government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's team naturally would like to have full control over the timing of the fall of government. Their proposals on EI and other legislative treats are designed to be difficult for the Opposition to oppose without political damage.

Even the ways and means motion, a routine parliamentary tool that signals a budget bill is forthcoming, is tricky for the Liberals to vote against, given that they supported the spring budget in the first place.

"Canadians are going to see a government that's focused like a laser on the economy and good government," Transport Minister John Baird said in an interview.

Still, Harper will have to avoid the perception that his actions in the Commons are solely aimed at tripping up his opponents.

"The government doesn't want to change the lay of the land," said one Conservative insider, pointing to the public's general distaste for an election.

"This is not a time for the government to be provocative and take away the advantage that it has of the public's perception."

The Liberals meanwhile must continue to make the case to Canadians that bringing down the government is the right thing to do, and that they make better managers of the economy than the Conservatives.

To date, the Liberals have provided few hard details on the policies they would pursue in government.

Ignatieff will deliver a major speech Monday to the Canadian Club in Ottawa, giving his take on Canada's place in the world and where he would like to see it go.

 
 
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