OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a rare suspension of Parliament on Thursday, managing to avoid being ousted by opposition parties angry over the minority Conservative government’s economic plans and an attempt to cut off party financing.
Governor General Michaelle Jean — the representative of Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state — agreed to Harper’s request to shut down Parliament until Jan 26. Parliament was reconvened just weeks ago after the October 14 election.
Harper’s request for suspension was unprecedented. No prime minister had asked for Parliament to be suspended to avoid a confidence vote in the House of Commons.
Such a vote had been set for Monday and the Conservatives almost certainly would have lost it, and faced the possibility of being replaced by a coalition of opposition parties.
After a two-hour meeting with the governor general, Harper reaffirmed his promise to present a budget on Jan 27 and called on the opposition to work with the government over the next few weeks to tackle the effects of the global financial crisis.
“Today’s decision will give us an opportunity — and I’m talking about all the parties — to focus on the economy and to work together,” he told reporters.
The opposition Liberals, New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois — all to the left of the Conservatives — had signed a deal to defeat the Conservatives and put forward a Liberal-New Democrat coalition to form a new government.
The Bloc, which wants to take French-speaking Quebec out of Canada, pledged to back the coalition’s budgets and general policy direction.
The governor general’s role in government, as representative of the Crown, is largely ceremonial, though she has the final word on constitutional matters. Should the government be defeated in a confidence vote, she would decide whether to call a new election or allow the opposition to form a coalition government.
Harper’s gambit was the latest development in a constitutional battle that erupted last week after he tried to eliminate direct subsidies of political parties, a move that would have hit the opposition particularly hard.
He backed down on that, but the opposition parties also say they are upset that the government has not dealt adequately with the economic crisis and said it had lost the confidence of the House of Commons.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who would have become prime minister under the opposition’s coalition plan, said nothing he heard from Harper on Thursday had changed his mind about trying to bring down the government.
However, he did appear to open the door a crack to not proceeding with such a plan.
“This is about replacing Stephen Harper unless he made a monumental change,” he told a news conference. “It means a recovery plan, a real recovery plan.”
The New Democrats and Bloc maintained their insistence that Harper could not be trusted and must be removed, as did some members of Dion’s Liberal caucus.
“You can run but you can’t hide,” said Bob Rae, who is looking to become Liberal leader when Dion steps down early in May. He predicted the opposition would topple Harper early next year.
However the front-runner in the Liberal leadership race, Michael Ignatieff, said he imagined Jean may have told Harper “to have a think” and that would be good advice for all politicians on both sides of the dispute.
Liberal legislator Keith Martin told reporters after a caucus meeting that bringing the Conservatives down was “not at all” a done deal.
In the back of their minds may be the fact that in much of the country the idea of a formal agreement with the separatists did not go down well.
An Ekos opinion poll taken as the crisis reached its peak showed the Conservatives had shot up in popularity to 44 percent, enough to get a parliamentary majority if an election were held today, up from the 37.6 percent they received in the October 14 vote.
Liberal support dropped to 24.1 percent from 26.2 percent, the New Democrats fell to 14.5 percent from 18.2 percent and the Bloc edged down to 9.2 percent from 10.0 percent.
The poll, released late on Thursday by CBC television, covered 2,536 respondents from December 2-3 and carried a 1.9 point margin of error, 19 times out of 20.
Additional reporting by Louise Egan, editing by Peter Galloway