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Fish or cut bait, Canada's Harper tells opposition

OTTAWA, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper challenged the three opposition parties on Wednesday to either give the minority Conservative government a broad mandate for its policies or force a general election.

“The choice is not election or obstruction. The choice is election or give the government a mandate to govern,” said Harper, who has set up a confidence test for later this month on the government’s policy direction.

Harper, whose Conservative government was elected in January 2006, insisted that he did not want an election now, preferring one in October 2009, a date fixed in law if the opposition does not bring him down before then.

“We want this Parliament to work and we want to govern ... I think the Canadian people want us to govern,” he told a news conference.

“I continue to believe that the longer the government governs, the more it gets done and the more it has to run on in terms of re-election.”

He said he considered the government’s policy plan, to be formally delivered in the Speech from the Throne on Oct. 16, to be a matter of confidence. This is partly because it will contain a pledge for substantial tax reduction but also contain the government’s overall direction on the environment, crime and the combat mission in Afghanistan.

“We have tried to listen and tried to adapt our program where it’s realistic to do so and where it’s responsible to do so to address the demands of the opposition,” he said.

“But there is a ‘fish or cut bait’ on this. You can’t pass the throne speech one day and the next day say, ‘Well, we didn’t actually mean to do it or we didn’t mean to give you a mandate.’ We will take it as a mandate and we will take it as an ongoing question of confidence to get those things done.”

Harper’s challenge raises the prospect of future confidence tests on other broad legislative packages, even beyond the normal budget matters that are always confidence matters.

Some Conservatives are keen to take advantage of disarray inside the official opposition Liberal Party, where leader Stephane Dion is under fire for what some members see as his poor performance.

Many Liberals are also reluctant to go to the polls soon, particularly in light of a poor showing in three by-elections last month to fill vacancies in Quebec.

One prominent Dion supporter, Bryon Wilfert, has publicly suggested that leading Liberal members of Parliament join the other two opposition parties to vote against the throne speech but enough other Liberals stay away to avoid toppling the Conservatives.

The Conservatives are narrowly ahead of the Liberals in most polls and see strong opportunities in Quebec, Canada’s second most-populous province. But as polls stand now they would not win a majority of seats in Parliament.

“The math for somebody to win a majority is actually not very easy,” Harper said. “I think the possibility of a minority government in a subsequent election is pretty high.”

A new Harris Decima poll released on Wednesday puts the Conservatives at 33 percent nationally, the Liberals at 31 percent, the New Democrats at 16 percent, the Greens at 10 percent and the separatist Bloc Quebecois -- which fields candidates only in Quebec -- at 8 percent.

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren