March 21, 2011 / 3:21 AM / in 7 years

Conservatives land contempt but might survive

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s minority Conservative government was held on Monday to be in contempt of Parliament but increasingly looked as if it might stave off a new election by reaching out to the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).

<p>Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiles while speaking at a luncheon in Brampton March 17, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese</p>

A special parliamentary committee declared the Conservative government to be in contempt for failing to provide enough information on the cost of its crime agenda.

The ruling could have been grist for a possible vote of non-confidence on Friday, but it was not clear that such a vote would succeed, in light of reported government concessions to the New Democrats.

The government, which has been in power since early 2006, needs the support of only one of the three opposition parties to stay in power.

It will face at least one and possibly two confidence showdowns on Friday and likely more such votes next week over its annual budget, which is to be unveiled on Tuesday.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp said the government planned to add C$400 million ($408 million) for home energy retrofits and money to encourage doctors and nurses to go to rural areas, both touching on demands the NDP has made as a price for supporting the budget.

The New Democrats sit on the left of the political spectrum where they have little in common with the Conservatives, but leader Jack Layton has always said he wants to make Parliament work.

He has presented Prime Minister Stephen Harper with four demands and seems resigned to not getting all of them.

Before the CBC report broke, reporters asked if having one demand met would suffice.

“We will study the budget as a whole to determine if it’s good or not,” he said, leaning on a cane after a hip operation. “It is possible to vote for the budget, but we have to evaluate if it’s good for Canadians.”

The Conservatives have a substantial lead in the polls despite the ethical charges they face, and opposition parties have said they would make trust an issue in any campaign.

The parliamentary committee, dominated by opposition legislators, ruled the government had obstinately withheld information about the cost of its programs.

“(This) holds the government in contempt for the first time in Canadian history. ... This is not a good day for Canada or Canadians. This is not done lightly,” said David McGuinty, a legislator for the Liberals, the biggest opposition party.

Conservatives on the committee said the Liberals had been determined to achieve a contempt ruling from the start and dismissed the finding as a partisan sham.

Layton said the ethical issues made it harder and harder for the NDP to consider supporting the government but he would look at the budget carefully.

Weighing heavily on his mind has to be his health. In addition to his hip operation, he is also recovering from prostate cancer.

He said he was getting better each week. But he limped away from his encounter with reporters, and a five-week campaign would clearly be a tough slog.

If the Conservatives lose a vote on the budget or another confidence issue, Canada would embark on its fourth election campaign in less than seven years.

($1=$0.98 Canadian)

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway and Frank McGurty

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