Harper plays down election as support falls

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Thursday the country is in no mood for an election as a new poll showed support for his minority Conservative government is sliding.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L) greets members of the Conservative caucus during a meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa August 5, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The Ekos survey for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp put the governing Conservatives at 29.7 percent popular support, down from 32.2 percent in the previous survey, with signs voters may be unhappy over a plan to change next year’s census.

The pollster said it was the first time the Conservatives have fallen below 30 percent since late 2006, when they took power as a minority government, and it puts them in a statistical draw with the Liberals, who rose to 28.5 percent support from 26.4 percent.

The results echo the findings of other recent polls about support for the Conservatives, and came as Harper was meeting with his caucus in Ottawa.

Harper accused members of opposition parties of threatening an election, although Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff also says he is not interested in having one.

The Conservatives require the support of at least one opposition party to remain in power.

“That (an election) is not what Canadians want,” Harper said, adding later: “Canadians want us to continue to focus on governing and especially, colleagues, they want us to focus on the economy. That is what we will continue to do.”

The Conservatives won a stronger minority mandate in 2008, and because minority governments traditionally last about two years, there has been speculation in the media that another vote could happen this fall.

Under Canada’s electoral system, a party normally needs at least 40 percent support to capture a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. A party would need around 36 percent -- or about a 10-point lead over its nearest rival -- to win a workable minority government.

The summer is usually a quiet time for federal politics in Canada, with the House of Commons on a three-month break, but the unlikely issue of how next year’s census will be conducted seems to have caught voters’ attention.

The Conservative government plans to eliminate a mandatory long-form census, saying the questions are an invasion of privacy, but the change has been criticized as endangering the census’s integrity.

The government’s idea seems to be falling flat with voters, Ekos said in a note accompanying its data.

“In particular, it seems to have struck a raw nerve with the more educated class who may see this as an assault on the role of experts, professionals, and knowledge,” the polling firm said.

The Liberals vowed to keep pushing the census issue.

“Conservative MPs are already feeling the heat from their constituents and the more we can air public criticism on this issue on Parliament Hill, the more likely it will be that the Conservatives will come to their senses and agree on a compromise course of action,” Liberal Industry Critic Marc Garneau said in a news release.

Harper has kept a relatively low profile since Canada hosted world leaders at the G8 and G20 summits in June and a visit by the Queen in early July.

His relatively brief address to the Conservative caucus praised Canada’s economic recovery efforts, and made no mention of the census plans.

The Ekos survey put the left-leaning New Democrats in third place with 17.4 percent support, almost flat from the last check of voter intentions. The Greens, at 11.1 percent, and Bloc Quebecois, at 10.4 percent, were also little changed.

The Ekos automated telephone survey of 3,444 people was conducted between July 21 and Aug 3. The poll is considered accurate to within 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Writing by Allan Dowd; editing by Peter Galloway