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Harper won't rule out voting for estimates

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. November 8, 2005]

OTTAWA  — A week after he took NDP Leader Jack Layton to task for trying to strike a health-care deal with the Liberal government, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper would not rule out voting in favour of the government's supplementary estimates early next month because it could contain things his party agreed with. 

The estimates are a money bill and their defeat would prompt the defeat of the government and trigger an election.

Observers believe the opposition parties could defeat the government on the estimates on December 8 and escape individual blame from the Liberals for tabling their own opposition day non-confidence motion that would trigger an election campaign that would span through the Christmas holidays. 

"We will not vote against things unless we disagree with them," Harper said at a press conference in Toronto.

"We are not going to start voting against individual pieces of legislation we might agree with just to defeat the government because we don't want to hand the government an issue that should not be an issue in the election. 

"So we'll look at those estimates and what's being requested."

On the day Justice John Gomery released his report on the sponsorship scandal, Harper criticized Layton for trying to secure a health-care agreement with the prime minister in exchange for NDP support on confidence votes. 

"I can't comprehend the position," he said. "I can't understand how you can say, 'I'll support the government because they do something I like, even though they're corrupt.'"

Harper's comments come on the same day Prime Minister Paul Martin closed the door to further talks with the NDP and all but dared the other opposition party leaders to defeat his minority government before Christmas. 

Martin made the comments a day after NDP Leader Jack Layton called a Liberal proposal on health-care reform unacceptable and said he no longer would support the minority Liberal government on a confidence vote.

The prime minister sounded almost unmoved by Layton, the man who saved his government in the spring, and his new stance on defeating the government. 

"I made it very clear to Mr. Layton that proposal is now government policy and we're proceeding with it and if Jack Layton wants to join with us to protect health care, he is more than welcome," the PM said. 

"I'm not going to join the opposition in playing a lot of political games." 

Martin was referring to the Abbott and Costello routine the three opposition party leaders are now engaged in now that Layton said he won't back the government.  

After weeks of saying they would not bring down the government unless Layton was onside, the two other opposition leaders changed their tune after Layton's comments on Monday. 

Both Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles and Harper said that Layton must be the one who pulls the plug on the Liberals and bring forward a non-confidence motion during one of the seven opposition days coming in the next five weeks.  

"Our experience suggests that should we again attempt to bring down the government, Mr. Layton will use that attempt as leverage in his negotiations with the Liberals," Harper said during a speech to the Empire Club in Toronto. 

"I have no intention of allowing a Conservative motion to be a bargaining chip in a parliamentary poker game."

There are currently 308 seats in the House of Commons, with one vacancy for the late Chuck Cadman. The Speaker is a Liberal and can only vote to break a tie. The opposition parties need a combined 154 votes to topple the government. 

Currently the combined 98 seats for the Conservatives and 54 seats for the Bloc Quebecois could topple the government with the support of two of the four independent MPs. 

But the addition of 18 NDP votes would give the three opposition parties 170 votes without the support of any of the independents and would result in a clear defeat of the government in the House. 

The Conservatives have first crack at defeating the government on Tuesday when they get the first opposition day motion of the fall sitting. 

Harper has already ruled out tabling a non-confidence motion, but he said his motion will be "interesting."

The NDP could bring forward a non-confidence motion the following week, but Harper said there is no guarantee he could support that motion if it's not correctly worded.

"I think the best way to do it is clear a motion of non-confidence. Probably a motion that specifies the government's corrupt record.

"I don't want the NDP to come forward with some motion that we're against tax cuts and we're against health-care. If it's going to be a substantive motion it should obviously focus on the government's record of corruption."

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