(Adds Environment minister’s comments)
By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA, July 25 (Reuters) - Elections to fill three seats in Canada’s House of Commons will be held on Sept. 8 with the major issue likely to be the opposition Liberal Party’s proposal to introduce a carbon tax.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the date of the elections on Friday. Two of the seats had been held by the Liberals, one in Ontario and one in Quebec, and another in Quebec held by the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The outcome will not affect the balance of power in the House but the strength of the vote for the Liberals may give some indication of how Canadians feel about the carbon tax idea, designed to combat climate change. The Liberals propose to offset the new tax with income tax cuts and subsidies for the poor.
The elections will play into opposition calculations over whether to topple the minority Conservative government, which was elected in January 2006 and has been sustained in power by Liberal Party support.
The Liberals are running neck and neck with the Conservatives in the polls, meaning a general election could go either way with another minority government the likely result.
The Liberals have less money and are not as well prepared as the Conservatives but they have in recent weeks dominated the headlines with their carbon tax idea.
The Conservatives have been low-balling their chances in the votes.
Environment Minister John Baird dismissed the suggestion it could be viewed as referendum on the carbon tax — which the Conservatives have been criticizing across the country with campaign-style attack ads.
"I think what we’re having on Sept. 8 are elections in three constituencies, 1 percent of the country, and I wouldn’t read anything more into it than that," Baird told reporters in Vancouver.
The Conservatives’ best shot in the by-elections is in the Ontario district of Guelph, which a Liberal won in 2006 with 38.4 percent of the vote against the Conservatives’ 29.8 percent and 22.0 percent for the left-leaning New Democrats.
This time, however, the New Democrats have a well-known candidate running in the constituency, author and broadcaster Tom King.
The Westmount seat in Montreal is about as safe a Liberal district as there is, though the Liberals are mindful that the New Democrats grabbed another Liberal stronghold in the city in a September 2007 by-election.
The third seat being contested on Sept. 8 is just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal and was taken by the Bloc in 2006 with 45.3 percent to the Liberals’ 23.3 percent and the Conservatives’ 19.7 percent. Harper gave a speech there last month but he is not expected to campaign actively there. (With reporting by Allan Dowd editing by Rob Wilson)