OTTAWA (Reuters) - The leader of Canada's opposition Liberal Party predicted on Monday there could be an election next year, but stressed he had no immediate plans to try to bring down the minority Conservative government.
"2008 -- we'll see ... after two years maybe people will find that they will be more open to the idea and more willing to compare what we have to offer with the Conservatives," Stephane Dion told reporters.
"The more they are willing to look at that and to compare, the more it will be good for the Liberals, I'm sure."
A series of recent polls show the Liberals trailing the Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who won power in January 2006. Minority governments in Canada last about 18 months on average.
Dion is a bookish figure who has had a rough time since winning the Liberal leadership in December 2006. Critics portray him as out of touch, while some inside his party are unhappy with his performance.
A Nanos Research poll released on Monday put Harper well ahead of Dion in terms of trustworthiness, competence and the best vision for Canada. Pollster Nik Nanos said Dion was trying to create a new tough image for himself.
"The problem is that, in this particular environment, he's got a lot of ground to make up," Nanos told Reuters.
The Liberals, the biggest of the opposition parties, have kept the Conservatives in power on several confidence votes this year, causing tension among some party legislators who say they should be opposing the government rather than supporting it.
Dion said this policy would continue when Parliament votes -- possibly as early as Tuesday -- on whether to back planned tax cuts. The government would fall and an election called if the Conservatives lost the vote, but that prospect looks very unlikely.
"We don't want an election for now. I don't think Canadians want an election just before Christmas," Dion said.
Insiders suggest Dion might try to bring down the government before it presents its next budget, expected in late February or early March. This could be virtually impossible, given that the Conservatives control the timing of confidence votes and could easily delay them until after the budget.
"In my heart, in my guts, I would like to replace this government yesterday," Dion told CBC.
He told a weekend meeting of Liberals he would campaign on the environment, boost aid to seniors and reduce poverty, especially child poverty. He also promised tax cuts.
He said the next election would pit Harper's "narrow, selfish Conservative idea of Canada" against "our generous, sincere vision of a richer, greener, fairer Canada ... There will be a collision between these two concepts."
Dion said Harper had a hidden right-wing agenda, the same accusation that helped the Liberals in 2004, but failed in the 2006 campaign.
Fighting a campaign from the left would undoubtedly cause friction between the Liberals and the left-leaning New Democrats, who made gains in January 2006 at the Liberals' expense.
"In the last election, (New Democrat leader) Jack Layton asked Canadians to lend him their vote. What did they get? Stephen Harper. Many Canadians will demand their vote back -- with interest," Dion told the Liberal meeting.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson