OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadians are getting more accepting of the idea of a federal election, opposition leader Stephane Dion said on Wednesday, but he refused to suggest he was ready to topple the minority Conservative government any time soon.
"We've seen in the winter and the spring more and more interest in federal politics and more and more appetite for an election," the Liberal leader told reporters at a campaign-style "town hall" gathering in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.
"So we'll see what will happen in the coming months."
The Conservatives have been in power since February 2006 with Prime Minister Stephen Harper heading what is now the fourth-longest minority government in Canada's history. But Dion was ambivalent on whether to trigger a general election this autumn by defeating the government in a confidence
Perhaps the most closely watched indicator will be how the parties do in three byelections this fall, which Harper is expected to call this week to fill vacancies in the House of Commons.
Currently, the two main parties are neck and neck in opinion polls. So, if the Liberals do well, Dion will likely be encouraged by the hawks in his party to pull the plug on the Conservatives. If the Liberals are rebuffed, it will make him more hesitant.
Two byelection will be held in Quebec, with one in Ontario, likely in early or mid-September.
Setbacks for the Liberals in byelections in September 2007 and March 2008 -- including a loss in what was seen as a "safe" seat in Montreal -- have given Dion pause.
"I cannot tell you when (an election will be triggered)," Dion said at Wednesday's town hall session.
"I know that Canadians are telling me more and more, 'You were right to wait. We know more and more about this government, and we know more and more about what kind of government you Liberals may give to us...' "
Even if the Liberals trounce the Conservatives in the byelections, another wild card is the government's ability to delay the return of Parliament to late November, after the Conservative Party's policy convention.
That would deny the opposition the opportunity to bring them down before then, though they have previously insisted they have no plans to push back Parliament's return.
Central to any election campaign will be the Liberal plan to introduce carbon taxes totaling about C$15 billion ($15 billion) a year, to be offset by corporate and personal income tax reductions and subsidies to the poor.
The Conservatives have framed the idea as a tax grab and income redistribution plan, but Dion said he was convinced the public would come around to support it.
The Conservatives need the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation and remain in power, and could be brought down at almost any time the House is in session.
If the government is not defeated in a vote of confidence, an election will automatically be held in October 2009.
Editing by Rob Wilson