December 3, 2008 / 4:41 PM / 9 years ago

Harper says chief rival weakening the country

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper, battling an opposition move to defeat his minority Conservative government, accused his chief rival on Wednesday of weakening Canada by signing a pact with separatists.

<p>Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 3, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

Harper, who is expected to seek the temporary shutdown of Parliament ahead of a confidence vote scheduled for next Monday, also said Liberal leader Stephane Dion could defuse the crisis by working with him to tackle a worsening economy.

The prime minister will address the nation on Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST (2400 GMT) as part of a growing political and constitutional battle over whether the opposition should be allowed to replace his government.

The Conservatives won an increased minority in the October 14 general election, and Harper has been arguing that a deal by the three opposition parties to bring down the government and form a coalition government would undermine democracy.

Harper says he is particularly outraged that the Liberals and the left-leaning New Democrats -- who would form the coalition government -- have signed a deal to gain the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which wants independence for French-speaking Quebec.

“The leader of the Liberal Party is not working with us to prepare the budget and to strengthen this economy but to weaken this country,” he told a rowdy session of Parliament.

“Why does the prime minister care more about his own job than allowing Parliament to save the jobs of Canadians?” Dion retorted.

Harper replied: “If the leader of the Liberal Party wants to save the jobs of Canadians he can put on the table specific proposals ... he can reach across the aisle and work with this government which will be pleased to work with him on saving this economy. But he must walk away from this deal.”

Harper could ask for a temporary suspension of Parliament at least until late January, when the government can present a budget with new measures to stimulate the economy.

To do that, however, he would have to win permission from Governor General Michaelle Jean, who arrived in Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon from a foreign trip. She is the representative of Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state and is the final word on such constitutional matters.

Dion wrote her to say suspending Parliament would be wrong since Harper had lost the confidence of the House of Commons.

“You cannot accept this violation of our constitution and this affront to our parliamentary democracy,” he wrote.

While both sides in the political crisis were crafting constitutional arguments as to what Jean should do, they were also actively trying to appeal to public opinion, including a series of planned rallies and Harper’s televised address.

The Conservatives say the opposition attempt to take over would amount to a coup, and some of their members of Parliament sported buttons with a red line through the word “coup”.

But the opposition says the Conservatives have lost the support of the House of Commons and must face a confidence vote they would likely lose. The vote set for next Monday would not take place if Harper’s request to suspend if Parliament is approved by the governor general.

“Instead of facing that test, he’s like the student who’s standing outside the classroom pulling the fire alarm before he has to write the exam,” Liberal Scott Brison told reporters.

It has not been an easy sell for the coalition, however, with some Canadians asking how it could be that Dion, whose party’s performance in the October election was its worst since Canada was founded, would end up as prime minister.

The opposition parties insist it is both democratic and proper for them to come together to try to form a new government if the Conservatives lose the confidence of the House.

They complain that there was little in the government’s recent fiscal statement to combat the economic slowdown, but what really galvanized them was a government attempt -- now abandoned -- to cut off direct financial subsidies to political parties, a move they described as a purely partisan action by the Conservatives.

If the government does manage to put off a confidence vote until late January or early February, it remains an open question whether the opposition parties would go ahead with their coalition plan and bring the Conservatives down then.

Additional reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson

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