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Layton opens door to early election

[PoliticsWatch Updated 3:30 p.m. November 7, 2005]

OTTAWA  — An election campaign through the Christmas period became closer to reality Monday after NDP Leader Jack Layton rejected a government counteroffer on health care and said the time to judge the Liberals for their corruption should come sooner than this spring. 

"As it stands at the moment, if there's a motion of non-confidence on the table in the House we will not be supporting or expressing confidence in the government," Layton said at a press conference after a speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto. 

But while saying the government no longer has the confidence of his party, Layton left the door open for further negotiations with the Liberals. 

"If Mr. Martin changes direction and makes a complete about face well obviously we'll have to hear him out," Layton said. "But I think that's pretty well impossible that that will happen at this point."

While Layton was publicly withdrawing his support for the government the other opposition party leaders held subsequent news conferences within an hour of Layton's speech and said the ball is now in Layton's court to put forward a confidence motion in the House. 

"If Mr. Layton is really serious about opposing this government he can take the initiative," Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said during a news conference in Montreal. 

He said there was a level of distrust of Layton and feared if the Bloc or his party put forward a confidence motion in the House, Layton would use it as a bargaining chip with the prime minister. 

Harper also expressed some skepticism about Layton's comments and said he wasn't sure if Layton's latest comments really change anything. 

"It seems to me that he's still looking for leverage to get more out of the government rather than let the people have their say," Harper said. 

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. 

There are currently several opportunities in the coming weeks for the opposition parties to defeat the government on a confidence vote. 

First, there are seven opposition days before the Christmas break, which are allocated to the opposition parties where they could bring forward motions including those expressing non-confidence in the government. 

The first will happen on Tuesday of next week when the Conservatives get their first motion. Harper said Monday that his first opposition day motion will not be a confidence motion. 

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said at a press conference in Sherbrooke he did not plan to use his opposition days for a confidence motion either and said "Layton has to make a move. It's up to him to do something."

"We now consider, as was the case in the spring, (the Liberals) do not have the necessary moral authority to govern. If the NDP and the Conservatives are of the same opinion as well then I think we should have an election.

"It's up to the NDP and the Conservatives to take action because the two are saying it has to be done through the federalist parties."

The NDP's first opposition day comes November 24th. But even if they don't bring forward their own opposition day motion all parties will have an opportunity to express confidence in the government when the government's supplementary estimates have to be passed on December 8. 

That bill is a money bill and its defeat would be a defeat of the government.

Under election rules, the election must be held on the first Monday after a campaign of at least 36 days. That timetable would mean if the government were defeated by an NDP opposition day motion an election would be held as early as Tuesday, January 3, the first business day of the year. If the government is defeated on its estimates then the earliest an election could be held would be Monday, January 16. 

The prime minister has promised an election call within 30 days of the publication of Justice John Gomery's second report on the sponsorship scandal due February 1. That would result in an election for mid April. 

However, the opposition parties may be tempted to go into the election campaign earlier to capitalize on the public anger from the findings of Gomery's first report, which concluded officials in the Liberal party were involved in an elaborate kickback scheme to fund the party using money from a government program. 

A poll over the weekend for the Globe and Mail showed the Liberals were trailing the Conservatives nationally by three percentage points, the first time the Conservatives have been ahead of the Liberals since the spring. 

Although Gomery went out of his way to exonerate the prime minister of any knowing of wrongdoing in the scandal, the Globe poll found that 71 per cent of Canadians believe Martin should still be held responsible for the scandal. And 60 per cent said that Martin's claim he was not involved in the scandal was not believable. 

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