NDP Leader Jack Layton set to offer Harper a lifeline

SUDBURY, Ont. - Michael Ignatieff says there's no turning back on his decision to try to sink the Harper government this fall, but the NDP is set to offer a lifeline.

SUDBURY, Ont. - Michael Ignatieff says there's no turning back on his decision to try to sink the Harper government this fall, but the NDP is set to offer a lifeline.

The Liberal leader suggested Wednesday that there's nothing Prime Minister Stephen Harper can do to persuade Liberals to continue propping up the minority Conservative government.

"We're not in negotiation here. We did that in June," Ignatieff told a news conference wrapping up a three-day Liberal caucus retreat.

Ignatieff backed away from the brink of an election in June, agreeing to negotiate potential reforms to employment insurance over the summer.

But he said those negotiations, which quickly became mired in partisan squabbling, proved the Harper government can't be trusted to deal in good faith with opposition parties.

The bipartisan working group on EI reform was to meet again Thursday but the Liberals have now walked out of the discussions.

Ignatieff threw the election ball into the court of the NDP, which has consistently voted against Harper secure in the knowledge that the election-wary Liberals would avoid defeating the government.

"It's up to the NDP to decide. I can't decide for other parties."

Since Ignatieff's announcement Tuesday that Liberals will no longer support the government, New Democrats have been making noises about a possible election-averting deal with the Tories.

NDP Leader Jack Layton is to hold a news conference Thursday to clarify the party's position.

A key source said Layton will announce that he's willing to support the government on a case-by-case basis if it backs NDP private members bills on issues such as extending EI benefits, measures to help seniors, and regulating credit card rates.

And Layton will even give Harper some wiggle room, stopping short of presenting a specific "shopping list."

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said he will also make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

"On each issue we're ready, we have concrete proposals based on Quebec's interests," he said in a Montreal suburb.

"If they say, 'Well, we'll apply those proposals because we think it's good,' then no problem we'll support them. If not, we'll oppose them and then we'll be facing the consequences."

Harper was skeptical that the NDP will prop up his government, but said he's willing to look at any proposals to help the economy.

"The NDP has been very proud of the fact - Mr. Layton says it over and over again - that in four years he has never once supported the government on anything important," he said in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

"So, that's their position. If it changes, if people are want to work together on things that will help the economy, we're willing to do that. We've had no indication of that."

Some Liberals suspect Harper will provoke his own defeat by introducing a ways and means motion - implementing aspects of last January's budget, including the popular home renovation tax credit - as soon as Parliament resumes on Sept. 14.

Such motions are automatically deemed confidence votes.

Liberals say they'll oppose the motion but reinstate measures like the home-reno tax break should they form government.

The Tory ploy would rob Ignatieff of his chance to defeat the government on Liberal terms, with a planned confidence motion in the first week of October.

It would also force an election several weeks earlier than Liberals had intended and the Tories would try to sow some uncertainty about the Liberal stand on the home renovation measure.

Ignatieff issued his first campaign promise Wednesday, vowing to slay the massive $50-billion deficit run up by the Tories - without raising taxes.

"We will clean it up without raising taxes ... wait and see."

He also said his platform will include a Canadian-made cap-and-trade strategy to fight climate change, unlike the Tories who are waiting to see the American plan.

Ignatieff said the ballot question is: "Who is best placed to lead Canada into the economy of tomorrow?"

To that end, Liberals have adopted as a campaign slogan the simple refrain "We can do better."

Ignatieff accused the Tories of fiscal mismanagement and said the Liberals will offer a "more compassionate and a more competent government."

"Remember the record - they offered us a budget with a deficit at $32 billion. It's a big number. Six weeks later it's jumped to $50 billion.

"So there's a question not just about the size of the deficit but the basic competence of (Finance Minister) Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper."

Ignatieff also accused the Harper government of "spraying money around like a kid with a garden hose" but said most of it has landed in Conservative ridings.

He said stimulus funds should be focused on projects that will make Canada more productive and competitive in the long term.

Liberals were behaving Wednesday as though a fall election is certain.

MPs were shown television ads that will begin airing next Tuesday as part of a massive campaign to make voters more familiar with Ignatieff and what he stands for.

MPs said the ads were all "positive" and "high road," featuring the leader clad in an open-necked blue shirt chatting informally about various issues, including the economy, the environment and Canada's place in the world.

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