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Martin plays hidden agenda card as election appears in full swing already

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:40 p.m. November 22, 2005]

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper kids with reporters by revealing his hidden agenda at the 2004 Press Gallery Dinner. 

OTTAWA  — Prime Minister Paul Martin gave a sneak preview of the Liberal strategy in the upcoming election campaign in the House of Commons on Tuesday, returning to accusing Conservative Leader Stephen Harper of having a hidden agenda. 
  

The atmosphere on Parliament Hill was election-like a day after the opposition parties used their majority in the House to pass a motion requesting the prime minister call an election in the first week of January. 

The government is refusing to abide by the non-binding motion, which will result in the opposition parties passing a binding non-confidence motion on Monday, sending the country into a Christmas election campaign. 

During question period, Martin tried to turn the tables on the opposition attacks and asked more questions during his response time than the opposition leaders did during their question time. 

That prompted Harper to say he was glad to see the PM was getting used to asking questions, in a veiled suggestion that Martin would become the opposition leader after the election.

Martin responded that he was not the only one asking questions. 

"Canadians are asking questions," he said. "They want to know what the leader of the opposition's position is on health. They want to know what the leader of the opposition's position is on the strength of the Canadian federation. They want to know what the leader of the opposition's position is on the kind of country that we want to build. They want to know in fact what is his agenda and why does he keep it hidden."

Harper was dogged in the 2004 campaign by the simple phrase "hidden agenda," which many believed helped the Liberals salvage a minority government, by scaring soft Conservatives and soft NDP supporters to vote for the "Devil they know" Liberals.

While appearing in a CBC town hall meeting during that campaign, an audience member actually asked Harper if he had a hidden agenda. 

"How do you deny there's a hidden agenda?" said Harper at the time. "I'm not sure you can pull up a file called `Hidden Agenda' and end it: Here it is or here it isn't."

After question period, Deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay said he's totally expecting the hidden agenda line to be used by the Liberals in the coming weeks.

"Get used to it," he said. "You're going to see a lot of it. You're going to see references to hidden agenda."

MacKay said he doesn't think Canadians are going to be fooled again. 

"Canadians are much more informed because of the Gomery report. They have much more information about the Conservative party."

He said the party would put forward a "comprehensive, caustic, common sense platform" in the upcoming election campaign. 

Another sign the election campaign was near full force on the Hill on Tuesday was the bombardment of e-mails reporters were receiving from all parties and the tsunami of announcements coming from the government in its final days. 

On Tuesday, Defence Minister Bill Graham announced a plan to begin taking bids on a $4 billion program to purchase 16 new aircraft to replace Canada's aging Hercules fleet. 

Critics are already suggesting that the one-page performance-based procurement strategy announced by the government will favour one company, Lockheed Martin, and its C130-J planes. 

A potential bid by EADS has been eliminated by the specification to have the plane certified upon award of contract, not upon delivery. The EADS model is not yet in production, making safety certification any time soon impossible. 

And industry observers say the decision to put a specific quantity up for bid effectively kills a bid by Boeing, because it's plane is larger and would be more expensive. 

"They know what they want," said Conservative defence critic Gordon O'Connor. "They have organized the requirement to specifically result in that choice."

When asked if Lockheed Martin appears to have this bid locked up, O'Connor said, "The pattern they've started, if it's unchanged, I guess it would."

The Liberals didn't stop with planes on Tuesday. 

On Wednesday, the Liberals are expected to be delivered a report by former Ontario premier Bob Rae recommending it hold an inquiry into the Air India bombing. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott and Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations are to hold a scrum with reporters to "make an announcement regarding Indian residential schools."

On Thursday, the PM will be in B.C. where he will attend a First Ministers' meeting with Aboriginal leaders and is expected to announce nearly $5 billion to end Aboriginal poverty. Martin is also expected to announce a $1 billion package for the softwood lumber industry. 

NDP Leader Jack Layton described the Liberal announcements as  "unbridled pre-election chaos."

"I think what we're seeing is the Liberals had hoped to make all kinds of announcements over an extended period," he said. "Now they're having to jam them all into a week - three and four a day."

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