SUDBURY - Michael Ignatieff says the Harper government is on "life support" - and he sounds like he may be ready to pull the plug.

The Liberal leader kicked off a summer caucus retreat Monday on a hawkish note, suggesting he's keener to force a fall election than some of his strategists.

"We've kept this government on life support for 10 months," Ignatieff said, noting that Liberals supported last January's recession budget despite deep reservations.

"But in June I made it clear that in a whole number of areas, the government's performance was letting Canada down and it hasn't got better over the summer."

Ignatieff backed away from the brink of an election in June after Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to set up a bipartisan working group to study employment insurance reform.

But Ignatieff said the panel has turned into "a bit of a charade," with the Tories rejecting out of hand his proposal to set a national standard of 360 hours of work to qualify for EI benefits.

The caucus retreat, which ends Wednesday, will be consumed primarily with the issue of whether the Liberals should finally vote to defeat the government during the fall sitting of Parliament, which resumes Sept. 14.

They'll have their first opportunity to present a motion of non-confidence during the first week of October. Ignatieff wouldn't say whether he's ready to take that opportunity, but he didn't rule it out either.

"We're going to have a good discussion (during the caucus retreat) and we'll make a decision when it suits us."

Senator David Smith, Ignatieff's national campaign co-chair, said last week that EI would not be the trigger for a fall election and that it would be "irresponsible" for the Liberals to push the election button at the first opportunity.

Other strategists have said the party needs time to regain ground lost over the summer, during which the Liberals' lead in opinion polls evaporated. They maintain there's simply not enough time between Parliament's resumption and the first week of October to do that.

However, insiders say Ignatieff and his office staff are much more gung ho.

Earlier Monday, Transport Minister John Baird praised Smith for showing some "sanity" and backing away from the threat of a fall election.

"The very last thing this country needs is an unnecessary election, less than a year (after) we had the last one," Baird said.

"Election threats, election posturing, political posturing, I don't think is what the economy needs. What the economy needs is people working together."

Baird warned that an election could jeopardize the fragile economic recovery. And he said it would grind to a halt negotiations on funding for new infrastructure projects.

Ignatieff scoffed at Baird's argument.

"With the greatest respect, that's a piece of nonsense. For a guy who hasn't flowed the infrastructure (funding) to claim that the infrastructure won't flow if we have an election is just tying himself in knots."

Last fall, Harper ignored his own fixed-election date law and called a vote just before the country plunged into recession.

Ignatieff also took issue with Baird's assessment that the economy is starting to perk up. The Liberal leader said such "rosy" views are not held by striking workers at Vale Inco or members of various women's groups in Sudbury, with whom he met earlier Monday.

"It's tough out there in Canada. Things are not going well. This government somehow doesn't get that."

NDP MP Glen Thibeault, who stole the Sudbury riding from the Liberals during last October's election, sneered at Ignatieff's professed concern for working people. While Ignatieff was attending a $550-per-person fundraiser Monday evening, Thibeault hosted his own $5.50-per-person spaghetti dinner, the proceeds of which were to go to the United Steelworkers' strike fund.

The NDP and Tory pile-on suggests other parties are taking Ignatieff's threat to force an election seriously.

Also Monday, Tory campaign director and newly appointed senator Doug Finley sent out an email fundraising pitch warning that the Liberals are expected to launch a massive advertising campaign after Labour Day.

"I have no doubt that the Liberals will go to the wall with this campaign," Finley wrote, seeking funds to help the Conservative party "fight back."

"They are desperate to regain power and they will do anything to win."

Liberal election readiness suffered one setback Monday - the resignation of a Quebec candidate over Ignatieff's stance that Canada should stop exporting asbestos, the lifeblood of Quebec's Thetford Mines district.

Ignatieff did not back down, saying a Liberal government would help the region develop other job creation possibilities.