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Opposition says bring on election

(PoliticsWatch posted February 23, 2004) OTTAWA - Despite the shadow cast on the Liberal Party by the sponsorship scandal, a spring election call is starting to look likely and appears to have the support of MPs from all parties. 

Last week, Prime Minister Paul Martin hinted during an open line call-in show appearance in Saskatoon that he wants to hold an election for the spring. 

"Canadians are entitled to say 'we want to give the new prime minister a mandate,'" he said. 

Martin said he would call an election when he felt Canadians have enough information about the scandal. 

One such avenue to convey that information is the public inquiry, which will be conducted by Justice John Gomery. The terms of reference for the inquiry includes a direction for the inquiry to "submit, on an urgent basis, one or more reports, interim or final, of his factual findings." 

However, a government official says that the terms of reference do not compel Gomery to report before an election and the prime minister cannot request such a report before an election. 

"I certainly would want as much light shed on this before an election," the PM said last week. "And if it's possible to do an interim report, then that's what we would like to see." 

But is there enough time before an election call in early April for the inquiry to shed any kind of light on this scandal from a commission of inquiry that has been given a "broad mandate" of investigation?

"I can't imagine that a judicial inquiry could have an interim report that would say anything of any substance within a month," said Conservative MP John Williams, who is also chair of the Commons public accounts committee, which is also investigating the sponsorship program. 

Williams notes that it has taken two weeks already to get the terms of reference done for the public inquiry. He also said that he does not believe his committee would be able to get to the bottom of the scandal in a month. "We're only meeting six hours a week," he noted, adding that he could not estimate when his committee would be able to issue a report. 

However, one of Williams' Conservative counterparts agrees that no light will be shed on the scandal in a month, but still believes an election should be called anyway.

Conservative MP John Reynolds says he doesn't expect Justice Gomery to get the inquiry under way until early April and an interim report at the earliest would arrive in mid May. 

"I think the idea of a May 10 election is probably gone," he said. "But maybe we're into one towards the end of June. I don't know. But we're happy whenever he wants to call it.

"We're ready to fight any time."

NDP Leader Jack Layton also wants the prime minister to bring on a spring election and, unlike the Conservatives, thinks the inquiries have enough time to shed light on the issue. 

"We've said all along this should not be a long, drawn-out, 12-month inquiry," said Layton. "It should be done quickly. Let's get the facts on the table and get out to the voters so they can pass judgement on this government." 

The Opposition parties' enthusiasm for an earlier election may be buoyed by recent polling numbers that put the Liberals at a 12-year low of 36 per cent in popular support. 

According to John Wright of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid, 36 per cent would not be enough to deliver a majority to the Liberals. 

"Based on our experience in the polling over the last few years, 39 per cent appears to be the number that you need for a majority," said Wright. 

"We have a different party distribution right now in terms of how many we have. But in the past it's usually been around 39." 

And Paul Martin's closest advisors are confident that 39 per cent or higher is not out of reach. 

"If the truism is that a week is a long time in politics, and we've seen that in the course of this past week, then six weeks is an eternity," David Herle, co-chair of the Liberal Party's national campaign, recently told CBC News. 

"I would recommend that any time he wants to go to the people and we'll ask the question whether people think that Paul Martin should be the prime minister or Belinda Stronach or Jack Layton, I will take that ballot question any time."

But Herle said the prime minister would make his judgement in the "best interests of the Canadian people" and not for political expediency. 

And one Liberal MP is in agreement with going to the polls in the spring. 

"I think we have to get on with establishing a mandate," said Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who said that the public is ready for a late spring election. 

"We've had a setback, but I think the dynamics of an election will focus on a bunch of issues."

McTeague said based on his contact with his constituents the public anger has abated since the initial shock of the scandal broke and they have seen the prime minister being proactive, fielding questions and calling inquiries.

"People are now speaking to us," he added. 

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