March 12, 2008 / 3:53 PM / 10 years ago

Canada may escape election in first half of year

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Some opposition Liberals still talk about the possibility of quickly bringing down Canada’s minority Conservative government, but the prospects of an election before the autumn seem to be receding.

<p>Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (C) receives a standing ovation from his caucus while voting against an amendment to the federal budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 3, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

The government, elected in January 2006, is already the fourth-longest minority in Canadian history and has survived a series of confidence votes with the help of the main opposition Liberal Party.

The Liberals are letting the government win confidence votes this week on the budget, the combat mission in Afghanistan and climate change legislation, and indicated they would only trigger an election in coming months if the polls shifted dramatically.

“You go when you can win. It’s very simple,” Member of Parliament Bryon Wilfert, a key adviser of Liberal leader Stephane Dion, told reporters as he entered the weekly Liberal caucus meeting on Wednesday.

“I don’t think anyone is in a position to win right now. We’re both in the low 30s,” he said, referring to the percentage support the Liberals and Conservatives have in opinion polls.

On Tuesday, in announcing that the Liberals would not bring the government down this week over the budget, legislator John McCallum said the party would consider its options in April or May. “Later on in the session, all options are open,” he said.

He also expressed some discomfort in continuing to have to support the Conservatives, whether by abstaining or by just having a few Liberals vote against the government but not enough to topple it.

“I think we are accepting the leadership of our leader and we are happily but slightly uncomfortably voting the way we have been voting,” McCallum said.

Dion is in the delicate position of trying not to look weak while he waits for the right moment to strike, but also not making empty threats.

Speaking to reporters after the caucus meeting, the Liberal leader said: “There are certainly reasons for which we could topple the government, and we’ll choose the moment.”

Yet he gave no hint that things would suddenly change after the two-week Easter break which starts this weekend.

There will be further votes on budget legislation in April or May, but having already said the budget did not have enough to merit bringing the government down, Dion could find it tricky to force an election over the issue later.

The same could be said about Afghanistan or climate change, two issues on which the Liberals have propped up the Conservatives.

One area the Liberals see a glimmer of electoral hope is over what they see as ethical lapses by the Conservatives -- for example, allegations they tried to bribe a legislator to change his vote or tried to influence the U.S. Democratic primaries, charges the Conservatives deny.

“Those are things that we’re going to bring forward when we call the election,” Liberal Mario Silva said.

If they convert into a major swing in the polls, the Liberals would undoubtedly jump at the chance of trying to return to government, but the prevailing sentiment is they have little appetite for a snap election.

“Right now the polls are indicating that nobody’s going to win a majority, and also indicating that nobody wants an election,” Silva said.

“And so, if you’re reading the public mood -- and obviously I think most politicians should read what the public is saying out there -- nobody’s quite ready for an election just yet.”

Besides the question of support in the polls, some political strategists say the Liberals’ party machine is not ready yet to mount a campaign.

If nothing happens, Canada will automatically go to the polls in October 2009 because of fixed-date legislation brought in by the Conservatives.

Additional reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson

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