Election tension slackens with NDP poised to support Conservatives

OTTAWA — The NDP is likely to support the Conservative minority government in a confidence vote this Friday and avert another federal election — at least for now — party sources told The Canadian Press.

NDP Leader Jack Layton questions the government during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Monday.

OTTAWA — The NDP is likely to support the Conservative minority government in a confidence vote this Friday and avert another federal election — at least for now — party sources told The Canadian Press.

The highly anticipated ways and means motion later this week clears the way for a future vote on budget items such as tax credits for home renovation and the working poor.

The Liberals will vote against the motion after Michael Ignatieff said his party can no longer keep the government afloat. The Bloc Quebecois are still uncertain which way they’ll go.

The NDP sent a signal that it will vote to support the Conservative government on a confidence measure for the first time since Prime Minister Stephen Harper formed a government almost four years ago.

However, the party was surprised late Monday to find that the motion also contains a possible poison pill: a reference to tax measures that will go into effect should Parliament approve separate legislation on a free trade agreement with Colombia.

The NDP is adamantly opposed to the trade pact due to Colombia’s record of human rights abuses.

Supporting the ways and means motion would not prevent New Democrats from voting later against the trade pact. But the party must decide whether it wants to be seen to be facilitating the trade deal in any way.

NDP spokesman Brad Lavigne said the party is assessing whether inclusion of the Colombian trade deal tax changes in the motion are “substantial or inconsequential.” Other New Democrats characterized the matter as largely “administrative” and not overly significant.

A spokesman for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was quick to insist that “the ways and means (motion) is in no way related” to the Colombian trade deal. He suggested the NDP had made “an honest mistake.”

Apart from the trade deal, there may be little lasting political damage for the NDP in voting for popular tax credits. Nor would it be difficult to back a new change to Employment Insurance proposed Monday by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

All bets are off for future confidence votes, New Democrats insisted. The NDP hopes to extract more concessions from the government as the parliamentary session unfolds.

“There is no shame in not being goaded into an election you don’t want,” said one NDP insider, who said most of the party’s caucus were against taking the government down now.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the EI measures appear to be a “step in the right direction,” but stopped short of declaring his outright support.

“Our preference remains fighting for the unemployed rather than fighting for a second election,” Layton told reporters in a prepared statement.

“But make no mistake about it, we have no intention of giving this government a blank cheque, like Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals did.”

The usually loquacious NDP leader broke with precedent and took no questions after making his statement outside the Commons.

While Layton seemed to be grasping for a Conservative olive branch, it was far from clear the Conservatives were even extending it.

Layton repeatedly pleaded with Harper during the Commons’ daily question period to commit to working with the opposition parties. Harper flatly ignored him.

At a Conservative caucus meeting Monday, Tories were told Harper is focused on governing but that the party is also ready to fight on the campaign trail.

“I think the population has a right to expect that all parties in the House will honestly examine those (EI) measures and decide whether or not they are good for the economy before deciding whether to vote for or against them,” Harper said in the House.

The new Conservative proposal on Employment Insurance would extend benefits for workers who have been employed for seven of the past ten years.

It would affect an estimated 190,000 so-called long-tenured workers, who would receive between five and 20 additional weeks of EI.

Many of those workers were employed in the forestry and automotive industries in British Columbia and Ontario ridings where the Conservatives and NDP are locked in tight battles.

Conservatives are determined to project the image of a group singularly focused on government business.

“This is something we committed to some time ago,” Finley told reporters of the EI change.

“We’re delivering on that, we hope the opposition parties will support it because this is in the best interest of Canadians, that’s what we’re working for.”

But Finley and Blackburn seemed unable to answer why the measure is being announced within days of a possible election and not last spring when it was first considered.

Instead, they took a swipe at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff instead.

“We had hoped that Michael Ignatieff would come in good faith to the table at the EI panel this summer and contribute to this plan, but unfortunately Michael Ignatieff chose to walk out on the unemployed,” Finley said of an ill-fated bi-partisan panel.

Ignatieff retorted that the government made no proposals to reform EI throughout summer-long negotiations and can’t be trusted to work in good faith with opposition parties.

“They ragged the puck all summer and then they go, ’Hey presto, let’s put this up in the House of Commons to stave off defeat,’ ” Ignatieff told CBC Newsworld.

“It’s this kind of game playing that, we just, I can’t be party to.”

In a speech earlier Monday, Ignatieff accused the Conservatives of radically diminishing Canada’s position on the world stage.

“We have a prime minister that has so little regard for foreign affairs that he changes foreign ministers like he changes shirts.”

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