June 16, 2009 / 1:34 PM / in 8 years

Ignatieff holds crisis talks with PM

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The leader of Canada’s main opposition party held “productive” talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday in a bid to defuse a political crisis threatening to topple the minority Conservative government.

<p>Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>

Spokesmen for both sides said the talks had been productive, and further discussions would be held later in the day.

Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff said on Monday he would move to bring down the Conservatives on a budget vote on Friday unless Harper explained in detail how he planned to help Canadians survive the economic downturn.

Although Harper quickly delivered a largely defiant response, Ignatieff said he saw enough in the Prime Minister’s words to indicate some progress had been made. Harper then suggested the two meet on Tuesday.

“We’re gradually getting clearer answers and we made a little progress yesterday,” Ignatieff told French-language broadcaster Radio-Canada before the talks started.

Canadians are showing little interest in what would be the country’s fourth election in little over five years. A Harris-Decima poll for Canadian Press on Monday said only 14 percent of respondents wanted an election now.

Political observers largely agree that Ignatieff took too hard a line on Monday and is now seeking a way out.

Ignatieff, who like Harper insists he does not want an election now, says he is most concerned about the unemployment benefit system, which he demands be made more generous and more widely available.

Harper said on Monday that Ottawa would expand the system to include the self-employed later this year but added that broader changes would be too expensive.

“This afternoon I will put questions to the prime minister to see if there’s draft legislation (on the self-employed) or whether these were just vague words to calm down the political situation,” the Liberal leader said.

But Ignatieff also said he was prepared to be flexible on his demands for more jobless benefits, given that Canada faces a C$50.2 billion ($44.4 billion) budget deficit this year.

He also wants Ottawa to explain how it is spending billions of dollars in stimulus money, how it will restore the budget surplus, and how it plans to overcome a growing shortage of medical isotopes used in cancer tests.

The House of Commons is due to vote on supplementary budget estimates on Friday and if all three opposition parties vote against, the government will fall.

“As we don’t have clear answers to these questions right now, it is very difficult for our party to vote in favor of more money for this government,” Ignatieff said.

Polls show the Liberals are slightly ahead of the Conservatives but do not have enough support to guarantee winning even a minority government. The last election was in October 2008.

($1=$1.13 Canadian)

Editing by Peter Galloway

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