PM, Dion expected to meet briefly; election thought inevitable
September 1, 2008
OTTAWA -- Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper late this afternoon is expected to be bitter and brief, with members of both main parties accepting that an election call within a week's time is all but inevitable.
Mr. Dion's colleagues said yesterday he would use the meeting with Mr. Harper to explain four areas the Liberals believe are Tory vulnerabilities: the Prime Minister's decision to call an election before the fixed election date, suggestions of "thuggish" behaviour in Parliament, a weakening economy and the slow movement on environment policies.
Ralph Goodale, the veteran Liberal MP and Michael Ignatieff, the deputy Liberal party leader, both said in weekend television interviews that the party is ready for a fight.
Nevertheless, after first refusing to meet Mr. Harper before Sept. 8's planned by-elections and then announcing he would sit down after all, questions are swirling about whether Mr. Dion and his party are ready.
The campaign will be Mr. Dion's first as party leader, but Mr. Harper's third. And there is considerable discomfort within the Liberal caucus about Mr. Dion's plan to run on the implementation of a carbon-tax scheme.
The so-called Green Shift will likely be tweaked in response to feedback from Liberal MPs, Mr. Ignatieff and Dominic LeBlanc, a Liberal MP from New Brunswick, said yesterday. But they said there will be no substantial changes - even though some rural MPs and some in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada fear losing support because of the plan.
"It seems clear from Mr. Harper's chest thumping this week and his previous meetings with other opposition leaders that he's made up his mind to break his word and to certainly violate the spirit of the fixed election [date] legislation," Mr. LeBlanc said in a phone interview from Moncton.
"There's no good faith on the part of the Prime Minister. He's running ads now, with people talking about how they're going to be voting for Stephen Harper, yadda yadda yadda," Liberal MP Bob Rae told CTV Newsnet. "The election campaign, in some sense, has already started."
NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe met recently with Mr. Harper. Both leaders left saying the Prime Minister had made up his mind to hold an election, regardless of what the opposition parties said.
Similarly, the Conservatives said those meetings showed the opposition has no confidence left in the government. "I'm not terribly optimistic" the meeting with Mr. Dion will be any more productive, Peter Van Loan, Conservative House Leader, told CBC Newsworld yesterday.
While the election discourse yesterday was a tacit admission that today's meeting is more about optics than substance, both parties feel the need to hold the meeting to validate their criticisms of each other.
Mr. Harper needs to show the electorate he did what he could to repair a dysfunctional Parliament.
Mr. Dion had previously refused to meet with Mr. Harper until after by-elections are held on Sept. 8, but changed his mind on the weekend partly because he did not want his party to be unfairly labelled, Mr. LeBlanc said.
"Harper won't be able to blame us for some fabricated obstruction," he said.
The Liberals will pursue their plans to hold their caucus meeting early this week in Winnipeg, he added, saying it will be a prime opportunity to fine-tune the party's campaign platform.
Senior ranks from both parties rushed yesterday to broadly define what promises to be a polemical election campaign.
The Tories trashed the Liberals' carbon-tax plan as a massive, punitive tax hike, and touted their own plans to crack down on crime, reform the Senate and keep taxes low in order to boost the tepid economy. A federal election, they argued, is necessary to get Parliament working on those issues.
"When Canada has real economic challenges and important priorities to be dealt with, we can't afford to have a Parliament that is crippled by delay and obstruction by the Liberals," Mr. Van Loan said.
Crime and Senate reform will probably take a back seat to the economy in the campaign, added Mr. Harper's press secretary, Dimitri Soudas. Canada's economy has shown no growth in the first half of the year, dragged down by plunging demand in the United States, and a slow global economy.
"The economy usually is a driving factor for all the other factors" in election campaigns, Mr. Soudas said.
For their part, the Liberals are scrambling to polish their messages as well, determined to show the Conservatives' election call as a sign of panic.
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