TORONTO — NDP Leader Jack Layton is ratcheting down the election rhetoric with soothing words about making Parliament work as a confidence showdown looms.
The Commons returns for the fall session Monday after a break of almost three months, but a vote that could end the latest 10-month Conservative minority government might come before the week is out.
An unusually media-skittish Layton said little Saturday during an event in Toronto, but what he did say lowered the temperature somewhat.
“I think that everybody involved would want to see us co-operate in the House of Commons and get some results for people — especially those that are struggling right now: the unemployed and people being left behind,” Layton said as he inched away from reporters at an archway opening in Toronto’s China town. “So that’s going to remain our preoccupation.”
The New Democrats hold 36 seats in the 308-seat House, more than enough to keep Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government alive through the autumn if they can find common cause on an issue such as Employment Insurance reform. The Tories are likely to unveil EI proposals this week.
“That’s all I have to say about elections,” added the NDP leader.
Whether Layton’s NDP can change course after trumpeting its steadfast opposition to the Conservatives for the past three and a half years remains to be seen. Layton deflected a question about whether he’s open to a deal with the Conservatives, responding instead that New Democrats are “going to support the Canadian people and try and get some results for them. I think that’s what people want.”
What’s even less clear is whether Harper actually wants to work with any of the opposition parties in the House. The next Conservative campaign strategy appears to be shaping up as pitting the governing party against an spectral coalition of Liberals, “socialists and separatists.”
In a closed-door speech to party faithful last week in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Harper made the explicit pitch for the need for a Tory majority in order to forestall any chance of the Liberals usurping power with the aid of the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.
“If they get together and force us to the polls, we have to teach them a lesson and get back there with a majority, and make sure their little coalition never happens,” Harper said in a speech videotaped by a Liberal observer.
It’s a far cry from Harper’s words in opposition, when he lectured Paul Martin’s minority Liberals that they had an “obligation” to find common ground with one of the smaller parties or give up power.
“What the government has to do if it wants to govern for any length of time, is it must appeal primarily to the third parties in the House of Commons to get them to support it,” Harper said in a CBC interview in 2005.
The Harper government now appears prepared to bring the confidence matter to a head on its own terms, and quickly. A critical vote has been tentatively scheduled for Friday.
The so-called ways and means motion is usually a routine matter that signals an impending vote on a budget bill. But it is a confidence matter, meaning a majority vote against it would trigger the government’s fall.