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Harper declares war 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 4:30 p.m. April 27, 2005]

OTTAWA  — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said Wednesday he has made up his mind and will ask his caucus on Monday to vote in favour of a non-confidence motion against the minority Liberal government at the earliest opportunity. 

Harper made his decision public a day after Prime Minister Paul Martin and NDP Leader Jack Layton struck a deal to add $4.6 billion in new spending to Martin's February budget in an effort to gain the support of the NDP in any non-confidence votes until the budget receives Royal Assent in the Senate. 

"This is not the way that parliament should ever work," Harper said in a speech in Amherstberg, Ontario. "It's the most disgraceful thing I've seen in all my years on Parliament Hill. 

"This not how Parliament should work and as soon as we get back I will be asking our caucus to put this government out of its misery at the earliest possible opportunity."

While a vote on the budget may not come for weeks, the Conservatives have three non-confidence motions floating around Parliament Hill. Those motions could be voted on in the House sometime in early may, prompting an election in late June. 

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe has said he will not vote for the changed budget and has wanted a vote of non-confidence on Martin's governments for weeks. 

Harper's comments pave the way for a showdown between the four opposition parties in the House with three independent MPs holding the decisive cards in their hands. 

Combined, the NDP and Liberals have 150 votes, while the Bloc and Tories have 153. If all MPs show up for the vote, Martin will have to flip all three independent MPs to his side and have a tie vote broken by the speaker for his government to survive.

Currently one of the three independents -- Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish -- has said she will vote to keep the parliament alive. The two others MPs -- Chuck Cadman and David Kilgour -- appear to be wavering. 

The Liberal government has dropped behind the Conservatives in all major public opinion polls this month after a Quebec ad man told a public inquiry into the sponsorship scandal headed by Justice John Gomery that he secretly gave more than $1 million to the Liberal party or party officials in Quebec as part of an elaborate kickback scheme for lucrative sponsorship contracts. 

In an address to the nation last week, Martin promised to call an election within 30 days of the publication of Gomery's final report. That report is expected to come down in late December. However, it could be delayed if former prime minister Jean Chretien is successful in his federal court case set for June 6 to have Gomery removed for what his lawyers view as a bias against Chretien. 

In his speech, Harper took shots at both Martin and Layton for what he described as a "death-bed conversion" and a "deal with the devil."

"The prime minister has just cut a $4.5 billion deal to buy votes to deal with allegations of vote buying," he said. "So to deal with Liberal corruption we get an NDP budget. The way that this parliament is supposed to work, I guess, is what the Liberals don't steal the NDP gets to spend."

Harper said he does not know what the government's strategy is in gaining the NDP's support. 

"I guess their line is it's better for us to vote against an NDP budget then to vote against Liberal corruption. I don't know why they think we can't do both."

Business groups and editorial boards quickly criticized Martin, who earned a stellar reputation from the business community when he was finance minister, for his deal with the left-leaning Layton. 

Under the new budget arrangement, Martin had to withdraw a tax cut for large corporations. But on Wednesday, Martin said in an interview that he would reintroduce that measure in a separate bill that he hopes the Conservatives would support. 

Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was called in to defend the new budget on Wednesday. 

Goodale sounded less than enthusiastic about the changes, saying he preferred his February budget and that the new budget was not "the ideal arrangement."

"I would have preferred my original plan," he said. 

"We had to find ways in order to help the budget to succeed as much as it could through the parliamentary process and that's unfortunately the nature of a minority," he said. "It's a bit of an untidy process."

However, Goodale said his original budget's "fiscal fundamentals" have been maintained and the new spending is "absolutely consistent" with the government's program. 

He said it was important to point out that the adjustments did not weaken the debt plan or risk the government running a deficit.

Goodale came under attack earlier in the day from Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, who called Martin's deal with Layton an abandonment of the Liberal agenda for the agenda of the NDP.

"Mr. Goodale should resign," wrote Ibbitson. "His budget lies in ruins. The new NDP budget will significantly increase federal spending, much of it in areas of provincial jurisdiction, while reducing economic competitiveness and fiscal probity. The finance minister had said repeatedly such measures were fiscally impossible. What can he say now?" 

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