April 1, 2011 / 3:55 PM / 6 years ago

PM Harper sets scene for battle over vote subsidy

<p>Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop at a specialty vehicle shop in Dieppe, New Brunswick April 1, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Conservatives on Friday reopened a debate that almost brought down their government in 2008, promising to scrap public subsidies for political parties if they win the May 2 federal election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government would scrap the system -- something that gives an annual $2 subsidy to each major political party for every vote it got in the previous federal election -- if it won a majority in Parliament, a goal that has eluded it so far.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to support political parties that they don’t support,” he said in New Brunswick. “(It‘s) this enormous check that keeps piling into political parties every month ... that means we’re constantly having campaigns.”

The May 2 election will be Canada’s fourth in less than seven years.

Canada has strict rules on fund-raising, banning corporate and union donations and allowing individuals to give no more than C$1,100 a year. In the last quarter of 2010, the Conservatives raised C$5.2 million ($5.4 million) from the public, compared with C$2.2 million for the Liberals.

The Conservatives tried to scrap the vote subsidy in November 2008, a month after the last election. The three opposition parties united against that, and Harper only escaped defeat in the House of Commons by having Parliament suspended.

Eliminating the subsidy would help the Conservatives by financially crippling opposition parties, which are less efficient at raising money and rely on public cash.

The Conservatives received C$10.4 million in 2010 in subsidy cash while the main opposition Liberal Party picked up C$7.3 million.

Polls show the right-of-center Conservatives will win the election and might even transform their minority government into a more stable majority one.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said Harper planned to introduce what he called U.S.-style attack politics to Canada.

“We have a democratic system at the right price -- it’s economical, it creates a level playing field,” he said.

“Do you defend Canadian democracy or do you want to import American-style democracy into this country? I don’t think so, because you get big money, you get corruption, you get all the problems that bedevil American democracy.”

Later in the day, the Conservatives said that if they win the election, they will commit to striking a C$2.2 billion tax harmonization deal with the French-speaking province of Quebec by Sept 15.

Quebec, the second most powerful province with 75 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, has been asking for the money for years. The Conservatives had dipped in popularity there in recent weeks after refusing to help pay for an ice hockey stadium in Quebec City.

An Ekos poll released on Friday put public support for the Conservatives at 36.9 percent, up from 35.3 percent in a survey done by the same firm last week. Support for the Liberals slipped to 26.2 percent from 28.1 percent while the New Democrats were up to 17.2 percent from 14.2 percent.

The poll indicates the Conservatives would win another minority if an election were held now. The survey of 2,565 adults was conducted between March 28 and 31 and is considered accurate to within 1.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

($1=$0.96 Canadian)

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman

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