Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper given breathing room

Tories spared, at least for next seven weeks

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OTTAWA -- Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean sent Canada's 308 MPs into a time-out Thursday, giving Stephen Harper's minority government some breathing room and one last chance to fix the economy with a budget that will now come Jan. 26.

But Jean's decision at the end of an extraordinary week in the country's history may only have delayed the inevitable by seven weeks as the Liberal-NDP coalition vowed Thursday it will live to defeat the Tories.

 

Shutting down Parliament postponed Harper's certain defeat in a non-confidence vote scheduled for Monday that would have brought down his minority government only seven weeks after a $300-million election.

Harper said he hopes the temporary shutdown of Parliament will allow MPs to work together "at least to some degree" to get on with an economic package.

"Today's decision will give us an opportunity -- I'm talking about all the parties -- to focus on the economy and work together," Harper said.

But it also limits the government's spending powers at a time of economic crisis, prompting fresh charges from the opposition that Harper put politics above the greater good.

The opposition parties immediately condemned the move as unparliamentary and accused Harper of running scared.

"It's a sad day," NDP Leader Jack Layton said. "The majority of the House of Commons was ready to work right now."

 

Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin said Harper has run out of chances: "I think whether they go down now or eight weeks from now we are witnessing the death rattle of the Conservative government."

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, the coalition's prime minister in waiting, said it will take "monumental change" in Harper's behaviour for the Tory budget to pass in January.

"The distrust of this man is quite spectacular," Dion said. "He changed an economic crisis into a parliamentary crisis, a parliamentary crisis that could have become a national unity crisis."

And, Dion issued a warning: "Warm sentiments are not enough. His behaviour must change."

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the coalition will not abandon its accord over the next seven weeks while the Commons sits in silence.

"I cannot have confidence in a prime minister who would throw the locks on the door of this place, knowing that he's about to lose a vote in the House of Commons," he said.

Harper's stay of execution was only secured after the prime minister spent more than two hours with Jean at Rideau Hall before she agreed to prorogue Parliament.

"The government's work, my work, over the next few weeks will be focused almost exclusively on preparing the federal budget ... and I hope the other parties will be concentrating on exactly the same thing," the beleaguered prime minister said after emerging from his meeting with Jean.

The opposition coalition had asked Jean to refuse to prorogue, arguing that Harper no longer enjoys the confidence of the Commons.

A petition signed by 161 MPs went to the Governor General on Thursday morning stating that "a majority of Members of Parliament... believe that a viable alternative government can be formed."

The Conservatives hold just 143 of the 308 seats in the Commons.

The New York Times, moments after Thursday morning's announcement, reflected that sentiment: "Canadian leader shuts Parliament in bid to keep power," said the newspaper's online headline.

Time might just be what Harper needs as the coalition, supported by the Bloc, showed signs of strain Thursday.

In order for Harper to again be threatened, the Liberal-NDP coalition which formally came together on Monday has to hold together for the next 53 days and there were already signs Thursday it was cracking. Toronto Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis emerged from a Liberal caucus meeting and said he "cannot see (the coalition) holding together."

Karygiannis called for Dion's head because of an out-of-focus amateur-looking video of his address to the nation that was delivered too late for one of the TV networks to broadcast after Harper's address on Wednesday night.

"It was a disaster," Karygiannis told reporters.

But the men hoping to take over the Liberal leadership from Dion disagreed with Karygiannis and said the coalition is as strong as ever.

Michael Ignatieff called Karygiannis's comments disappointing, and said the only way Harper will be kept in check is for him to know the coalition is united against anything Harper does that is not in the best interest of Canada.

"It's the only tool that's got us anywhere," Ignatieff said. "I want to make it clear this caucus is as one in maintaining the credibility of that dissuasive instrument."

Manitoba cabinet minister Steven Fletcher said he thinks the coalition would not have even made it through the weekend, let alone the next seven weeks.

"I wasn't completely convinced we wouldn't win that vote but the risks were so high it wasn't in my view worth the risk," Fletcher said. "The unity of this country is too important to mess around with."

The Conservatives have stirred up a wave of national unity debate by calling the coalition a separatist-backed group out to destroy the country.

In his public address following his meeting with Jean, Harper pledged to work only with the NDP and Liberals in the consultation process for the federal budget.

Manitoba MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis denounced the Quebec-bashing.

"Stephen Harper and his colleagues did more damage to this country in a few short days than anyone could have imagined," said Wasylycia-Leis. "It has fueled separatist thinking and the polarizing Stephen Harper has done now has to be fixed."

-- with files from CP and Canwest News Service

 
mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca


 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2008 A3

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