OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper discussed the upcoming budget with the leader of the opposition New Democratic Party on Friday, a meeting that could bring concessions that might avert an election this year.
Harper’s Conservatives, re-elected in October 2008, have a minority of seats in the House of Commons and need the backing of one of three opposition parties to pass the budget bill in March. A defeat over the budget would force an election.
“Our talks were cordial and respectful. The prime minister offered no assurances, but I am confident that my proposals were received and well understood,” NDP leader Jack 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.
March 22 is the most likely date for presenting the budget, though the government has made no announcement.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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 any time soon, but his lead in recent opinion polls is sufficiently strong that he may not be inclined to make too many concessions.
“The prime minister was pleased to hear Mr. Layton’s views,” Dimitri Soudas, Harper’s communications director, said in a statement released after the meeting. “As the prime minister has stated publicly, this is not the time for an opportunistic election.”
Reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Frank McGurty