March 19, 2008 / 1:23 AM / 10 years ago

Dion plays down election talk

TORONTO (Reuters) - The head of Canada’s main opposition Liberal Party played down speculation on Tuesday that he might try to bring down the government soon, following byelections on Monday that added three Liberal legislators to Parliament.

<p>Liberal leader Stephane Dion (C) speaks at a news conference with newly elected House of Commons member Bob Rae (L) in Toronto, March 18, 2008. The Liberals captured three of four federal seats in Monday's by-elections. REUTERS/Mike Cassese</p>

Liberal leader Stephane Dion stuck to his position that the party would decide when and how to defeat the Conservatives, who only control a minority of the seats in the House of Commons and must have the support of at least one other party to remain in power.

“We are always ready for an election, but we’ll choose our time, and our priority is to be sure that this government will be kept accountable and that Parliament will work,” he said.

Dion is under increasing pressure from party members unhappy that he has kept the Conservatives in power several times over the last year. They want him to defeat the government, but two polls released on Tuesday gave the Liberals little reason to smile.

A Harris-Decima survey for Canadian Press showed the Liberals and Conservatives tied at just 32 percent public support, not enough to guarantee even a stable minority government for either party.

“Any party looking for a reason to cause an election in these numbers will find it hard to locate one,” said Bruce Anderson of Harris-Decima. A poll by a rival company put the Liberals 11 percentage points behind.

Under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, a party needs to capture around 40 percent of the public vote to stand a reasonable chance of winning a majority.

Dion unexpectedly won a Liberal leadership race in December 2006 but since then, the former academic has had great difficulty imposing his authority, in part because so few legislators initially backed his candidacy.

The byelections, held to fill four ridings or electoral districts left vacant by Liberal legislators who quit after the January 2006 federal election, provided some relief.

High-profile candidates easily won two seats in Toronto, but in a safe Vancouver riding, the Liberals saw their 12,000 vote advantage shrink to a victorious margin of just 151.

“That’s pretty remarkable,” said Sandra Buckler, the chief spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Dion blamed a low turnout and the decision by many people to vote for the Green Party as a protest against Ottawa’s environmental policies.

The Liberals also lost a riding in the Prairie province of Saskatchewan which they had taken from the Conservatives in 2006 by a few dozen votes. The Conservatives won easily on Monday, boosting their number of legislators to 127. The Liberals now have 97 seats in the 308-seat House.

The results also mean the three challengers Dion beat off to win the Liberal leadership in late 2006 are now all legislators. He brushed off suggestions this might make life easier for malcontents in the party to oust him.

“The fact that I have such a robust team means that I am in a stable situation. When you’re a leader you must not be afraid of working with strong people,” he told a news conference.

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson

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