September 12, 2008 / 8:12 PM / in 9 years

Leaders trade barbs over fuel price spike

<p>Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to a question during a news conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia September 12, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

BURNABY, British Columbia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper said a sharp jump in gasoline prices on Friday looked like price-gouging, but rivals on the election campaign trail complained he was not doing enough about energy costs.

The political parties traded barbs over the cost of gasoline as three new public opinion polls showed Harper’s ruling Conservatives maintaining a big lead over the main opposition Liberals, and putting them close to capturing a majority government.

Canadians awoke on Friday to gasoline prices in regions of the country that were about 13 Canadian cents higher than they had been the day before, a jump that producers said reflected the possible effect of Hurricane Ike on refineries in Texas.

Asked by reporters in Halifax, Nova Scotia. whether he thought the sudden increase was due to price gouging, Harper replied: “It certainly appears that way to me.”

New Democratic Leader Jack Layton accused the industry of “predatory pricing,” and his left-leaning party said it would create a price-monitoring agency so that oil companies would not “have free license to gouge consumers.”

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion stopped short of accusing the industry of gouging, but said the jump showed the futility of Harper’s pledge on Tuesday to cut the federal excise tax on diesel by half to 2 Canadian cents a liter.

“Today that was made irrelevant four-fold,” Dion said in Burnaby, British Columbia, where he was campaigning for his proposal for a carbon tax to cut greenhouse gas emissions - a tax that Harper and Layton charge will only add to rising energy prices.

Dion said the fuel price jump demonstrates the need for Canada to become less reliant on fossil fuels, a goal that he said the carbon tax would help achieve.

British Columbia is the only North American jurisdiction to have a comprehensive tax on greenhouse gas emissions, but the tax has proven unpopular since it was enacted this summer by Premier Gordon Campbell’s government.

“I know the premier is facing some controversy, but he is right,” said Dion, who was the last of the national party leaders to bring his campaign to Canada’s West Coast following the launch of the election on Sunday.

Dion discounted the new polls that showed the Liberals continue trail the Conservatives badly. “Polls are like the tide, they come and they go,” he said.

An Ekos poll of 4,367 decided voters put public support for the Conservatives at 36 percent against 26 percent for the Liberals. The New Democrats -- who are competing with the Liberals for the same block of voters -- were at 19 percent.

But Ekos said the Conservative lead had shrunk from the 39 to 24 percent advantage recorded among a smaller subset of 1,000 voters on Sept 8.

A Harris-Decima poll put the Conservatives at 41 percent and the Liberals at 26 percent, with the New Democrats at 14 percent. A Harris-Decima poll released on Monday had put the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals by 36 percent to 28.

A party generally needs close to 40 percent of the popular vote to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. A series of polls have put the Conservatives within a few points of that level, though the majority of the surveys have them under 40 percent.

(With reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer)

Reporting by Allan Dowd, Editing by Peter Galloway

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