OTTAWA (Reuters) - The government's ethical woes deepened on Thursday after police were called in to investigate allegations of misconduct by a former top aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The probe only increased the chances the three opposition parties will gang up on the minority Conservative government and defeat it in Parliament next week, triggering an immediate election campaign.
Opposition parties -- already contemplating a number of possible nonconfidence motions next week -- seized on the news of the investigation as further evidence of what they said were reasons to mistrust the Conservatives, who took power in early 2006.
"It's bubbling to the surface because it's been suppressed for five years and Canadians are now coming face to face with the true character ... of the Harper regime," said David McGuinty, a legislator for the Liberals, the biggest opposition party.
"The prime minister must explain immediately what happened ... it's appalling," he told reporters.
Harper's office announced late on Wednesday that it had called in police to investigate Bruce Carson, a senior advisor to Harper until 2008, on the grounds that he had apparently broken conflict of interest laws. Canadian media linked this to lobbying work Carson had done.
Pat Martin of the left-leaning New Democrats said the allegations were "absolutely loathsome and reprehensible".
Some opposition legislators seem to be spoiling for a chance to bring down the government -- which will present its budget on March 22 -- even though polls show the Conservatives would easily retain power.
The government needs the backing of one opposition party to pass the budget.
McGuinty and Martin spoke as a parliamentary committee was deciding whether to slap the government with a formal contempt ruling. It was meeting after House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken issued a rare rebuke to the government for refusing to say how much it would spend on new prison-building program.
The committee, dominated by the opposition, has the power to deliver a contempt ruling combined with a motion of nonconfidence in the government to the House of Commons next week. Legislators would then be asked to vote on the ruling.
Next Friday the House is due to vote on separate government spending plans and the Conservatives would fall if they lost. The Liberals also have a chance to present a nonconfidence motion next week and if they do so, it would go to the House for a vote on Friday.
This week police were also called in to investigate allegations of political interference by a former aide to a Conservative cabinet minister. Last month, four senior Conservative officials were charged with violating financing rules during the 2006 election campaign that brought the party to power.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway