SUDBURY, Ont. – The country could be plunged into yet another election campaign in as little as two weeks after Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff warned Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Your time is up.”
But no sooner did Ignatieff issue the bold statement Tuesday than an unlikely ally emerged who may help the minority Conservative government stay afloat.
The NDP, which has voted consistently against the government at every opportunity thus far, now says it may prop up Harper if he’s willing to work with them.
The manoeuvring began minutes after Ignatieff delivered a fiery, campaign-style speech to his caucus, announcing that the Liberal party will no longer support the Tories in crucial confidence votes in the House of Commons.
“After four years of drift, four years of denial, four years of division and four years of discord, Mr. Harper, your time is up,” Ignatieff told cheering MPs and senators in Sudbury.
“We will hold Stephen Harper to account and we will oppose his government.”
Ignatieff said Harper has “failed all four” benchmarks set out by the Liberals last June for continuing to support the government.
“You’ve failed to protect the most vulnerable. You’ve failed to create jobs. You’ve failed to defend our health care. You’ve failed to restore our public finances.”
An election-style partisan pep rally later Tuesday, Ignatieff was even clearer: “At the first opportunity, we will move a motion of non-confidence in this government.”
Their first chance to move a confidence motion will come sometime between Oct. 1-7. But Liberals may not have to wait that long to topple the government.
The government could introduce a ways-and-means motion – to implement some aspects of last January’s budget, including the popular home renovation tax credit – as soon as Parliament resumes Sept. 14.
A spokesman for Government House Leader Jay Hill said no date has yet been set but the motion will be introduced “early in the fall sitting.”
That would be an automatic confidence vote and Ignatieff’s spokeswoman, Jill Fairbrother, said the Liberals would vote against it. She hastened to add that, if elected, a Liberal government would quickly reinstate budget measures like the renovation tax break.
Ignatieff’s declaration briefly seemed to seal the fate of the government – and set the stage for an October or November election. There seemed little chance either the NDP or Bloc Quebecois would prop up a government they’ve consistently voted against.
But New Democrat MP Thomas Mulcair quickly offered an olive branch.
“What I’m saying is: the last thing Canadians want is a fourth general election in five years and we’d better have a bloody good reason for forcing a fourth general election in five years,” he said.
“So if Mr. Harper goes about being provocative as he has been in the past, going after key things that Canadians hold dearly like women’s rights and the environment, then we’ll throw him out of office because he’ll have provoked it.
“If, on the other hand, Stephen Harper comes into Parliament with a willingness to work in the public interest, then we’re going to take it on a case-by-case basis. Our caucus will decide.”
Mulcair listed a number of issues on which Harper would have to bend to secure NDP support: pension protection, enhanced employment insurance, protection against exorbitant credit card and ATM fees, and halting the foreign takeover of Nortel assets.
“If Mr. Harper likes to pick up some of our themes, then perhaps Canadians could be spared their fourth general election in five years.”
The Bloc had no immediate response to Ignatieff’s hawkish new stance.
In Calgary, Harper warned that an election could disrupt the fragile economic recovery.
“I haven’t met a single Canadian who’s saying they want to see an election right now,” he said.
“I think Canadians have been pretty clear they want Parliament to focus on the economy – that is what the government will be doing in the fall session.”
At the rally, where party militants banged thunder sticks and chanted his name, Ignatieff accused Harper of trying to “scare Canadians into believing that only his government can offer stability.”
“Well, Mr. Harper is wrong,” he thundered.
Canadians weren’t clamouring for an election last fall either when Harper ignored his own fixed-election date law and called a vote just before the country went into recession.
Many Liberal MPs aren’t eager for an election this fall, having gotten cold feet over the summer as a Liberal lead in opinion polls evaporated.
One MP who heard a briefing Tuesday by party pollster Michael Marzolini, said the numbers for August gave the Tories a three-point lead nationally.
But combined numbers for July and August had the Liberals leading in the key battlegrounds of Ontario and Quebec, as well as in Atlantic Canada.
In Quebec, the Liberals were said to be ahead of even the Bloc, with the Tories trailing far behind. The Liberals also led in the vote-rich Toronto region.
However, a majority of respondents said the Tories were on the right track on the economy but are spending too much money, suggesting the Liberals must offer a clear alternative.
In his speech to caucus and again at the rally, Ignatieff began laying out the themes Canadians can expect to hear repeatedly throughout an election campaign.
He said the country is being presented with a stark choice between “two sets of values, two visions for Canada” – in effect, writing off the NDP and Bloc as irrelevant.
“We can choose a small Canada, a diminished, mean and petty country, a Canada that lets down its citizens at home and fails them abroad, a Canada that’s absent on the world stage. That’s Stephen Harper’s Canada,” he asserted.
“Or we can choose a big Canada, a Canada that is generous and open, a Canada that inspires, that leads the world by example, that makes us all proud.”
Ignatieff said his goal is to make Canada “the smartest, healthiest, greenest, most open-minded country there is” by 2017 – the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Ignatieff has so far supplied next to no detail about what a Liberal government would do. But he did disclose one nugget Tuesday. He said he’d introduce legislation making it illegal for the government to “pick and choose which citizens it protects” when they run into trouble abroad.
“This is at the heart of what every Liberal believes . . . A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Ignatieff slammed Harper for presiding over the worst unemployment in two decades and plunging Canada back into a huge deficit.
There was some grumbling that Ignatieff announced his decision to stop propping up the government at the start of the national caucus meeting, before even hearing what his MPs had to say on the subject.
“As usual, as a professor he is dictating to us and lecturing us,” groused one MP.
Ignatieff didn’t take the advice of his own national campaign co-chair either, who last week suggested it would be “irresponsible” to force an election at the first opportunity.
Insiders said Ignatieff came to his decision in the past two weeks, the last straw being the government’s refusal to negotiate in good faith on employment insurance reform.