Harper talks to NDP leader Layton as election threatens

Fri Feb 18, 2011 5:24pm EST
 
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper discussed the upcoming budget with the leader of the opposition New Democrats on Friday in a meeting that had the potential to skirt an election this year.

Harper's Conservatives, reelected in October 2008, have a minority of seats in the House of Commons and need the backing of one of the three opposition parties to pass the government's budget bill in March or there will be another election. No date has been set for presenting the budget but March 22 is most likely.

"Our talks were cordial and respectful. The prime minister offered no assurances, but I am confident that my proposals were received and well understood," Layton said in a statement afterwards, without saying there was any agreement.

The NDP is on the left of the political spectrum, but it has been seen as the only party that might agree to back the budget. It is trailing in the polls and Layton has been recovering from cancer and now has a fractured hip.

Layton said he provided four practical proposals: taking the federal sales tax off home heating bills, boosting pension payments for low-income seniors, strengthening the Canada Pension Plan, and taking action to help the 5 million Canadians who do not have a family doctor.

Conservative sources said it was likely the government would be able to sweeten pensions for poor seniors. The government has also been taking some action to broaden the Canada Pension Plan, but the sources weren't sure if that would be enough for Layton.

Harper insists he does not want an election, but his lead in the polls is sufficiently strong that he may not be inclined to make too many concessions.

"Our New Democrat record is clear. I am always ready to work with other party leaders to get immediate action for Canadian families," Layton said.

"And so now the prime minister has a choice. If Mr. Harper wants to head into an election showing that he is unable to put the needs of Canadians ahead of his own political goals, New Democrats are well prepared to fight that election. If the prime minister is serious about getting things done and giving Canadian families a break, there are concrete New Democrat solutions on the table."

(Reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Peter Galloway)

 
<p>New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton delivers a speech on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in this January 28, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>