By Mark Kennedy, Andrew Mayeda and Tobi Cohen,
March 27, 2011 6:48 PM
BURNABY, B.C. — Prime Minister Stephen Harper's political weapon against rival parties has backfired and threatens to raise questions about his own credibility as he enters the third day of the race.
Harper's political past came back to haunt him Sunday on the question of coalition governments, as he fended off accusations by the opposition parties that he discussed forming a coalition with the Bloc Quebecois and NDP in 2004.
Harper has warned that the opposition parties will band together to form a Liberal-led coalition unless Canadians elect a majority government on May 2. Only a Conservative majority, he has argued, will guarantee the stability needed to ensure Canada's economic recovery remains on track.
He has delivered the warning at every stop on the campaign trail, including at a rally of Conservative supporters in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday evening.
Harper said the threat of an opposition coalition imperils the country's economic recovery and said the only solution is for Canadians to elect a "stable, national, majority Conservative government."
He is expected to continue pressing this at events on Monday near Victoria and in Edmonton. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is campaigning in Toronto, while the NDP's Jack Layton is in Regina.
Already, the opposition parties are striking back against Harper's allegations, accusing him of being a hypocrite for sowing fear of a coalition government, when he once appeared open to the idea himself.
The Conservatives hope lingering unease with the notion of a coalition will give them the push they need to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The risk for Harper is that the issue will morph into a debate about ethics, the opposition's preferred terrain. According to most polls, Harper is still considered by Canadians to be the most trustworthy leader. But the opposition hopes a series of controversies, including charges that senior Conservative officials violated election rules in 2008, will cut into that lead.
Harper's dalliance with the NDP and Bloc dates back to 2004, just months after Paul Martin's Liberals formed a minority government.
In September of that year, Harper signed a letter to then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson saying the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP had been in "close consultation" about what would happen should the Martin government fall. The letter, also signed by Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and Layton, reminded Clarkson that the three parties represented a majority of seats in the House.
The three leaders later appeared at a news conference together to discuss their arrangement, which all three leaders refused to publicly call a "coalition." Harper suggested "co-opposition" would be a better term.
But both Duceppe and Layton now say Harper discussed the prospect of a coalition at a private meeting they had at a hotel in Montreal before they signed the letter. Both leaders say Harper arranged the meeting.
For the second straight day, Duceppe accused Harper of lying about the arrangements made in 2004. "Quebecers are going to choose the truth," he said.
Layton stopped short of calling Harper a liar. But he said it was "crystal clear" that Harper hoped to become prime minister through the 2004 negotiations, even though the Conservatives didn't hold the most seats in the House.
"I know because I sat at the table where those discussions took place," Layton told reporters after addressing a rally in Surrey, B.C.
Coalition governments are not unheard of in parliamentary democracies such as Canada's. British Prime Minister David Cameron is currently governing under a coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats.
Harper has argued it would be illegitimate for a party that didn't win the most seats in an election to try to form the government. He also says a coalition that includes the separatist Bloc should not be considered legitimate.
Ignatieff declared Sunday that his party will not form a coalition government under any circumstances.
"The person who has got a problem with the coalition is Stephen Harper," Ignatieff said.
"He has to explain what he was doing in Toronto hotel rooms meeting with Jack and Gilles. I don't have that problem. I don't go to hotel rooms with Jack and Gilles. I haven't had those kinds of happy conversations. So it is his problem, not mine. I was very clear right out of the gate: We are ruling out a coalition."
Ignatieff released a statement on Saturday to clarify the Liberal position on coalitions. The issue has dogged the party since December 2008, when former leader Stephane Dion attempted to form a coalition with Layton and Duceppe.
Ignatieff's statement said the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government. The Liberals also ruled out a coalition with "other federal parties" and the Bloc.
But Ignatieff also called coalitions a "legitimate constitutional option" in Canada's parliamentary system — a statement the Conservatives say leaves the door open to a future Liberal-led coalition.
Harper's aides said Sunday his purpose in 2004 was to remind the governor general that she could deny an election request from Martin and force him to co-operate with the opposition parties.
For his part, Harper wouldn't provide a direct answer about his intentions in 2004. Instead, he focused on how the Conservatives ultimately brought down the government in 2005 by tabling a non-confidence motion. Rather than trying to form a coalition, the Conservatives wanted to force an election so they could get their own mandate from the Canadian electorate, he said.
"We began in 2005 and that was to defeat the government so that we could go to the election and get our own mandate. That's how the Conservative party formed the government," said Harper.
With files from Althia Raj and Kevin Dougherty, Montreal Gazette
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Sunday, March 27, 2011
Posted by Brent Fullard at 10:11 PM