Commentary on Canadian political issues
OTTAWA – The spectre of a spring federal election loomed larger Wednesday as Liberals and Conservatives reached an apparent impasse over a $3 billion fund aimed at quickly stimulating Canada's sputtering economy.
Liberal finance critic John McCallum said his party will propose a motion next week calling on the government to itemize precisely how the $3 billion will be spent.
The move followed Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's adamant assertion Tuesday that his party will not approve the fund without details.
But a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed Ignatieff's ultimatum, suggesting the Liberals are simply playing politics with the economic crisis.
Kory Teneycke said Harper's minority Tory government will happily provide full disclosure – "after the fact" – about how the money is spent and noted that all expenditures can be reviewed by the auditor general. The government, however, does not intend to produce an itemized list in advance.
"I think this is really a PR stunt, more than anything else," Teneycke said.
"If the Opposition is serious about wanting to see stimulus move quickly, they can't then oppose every specific action to see that happen. I don't think they're being very genuine about this."
Liberals have agreed to speedy approval of the main budget implementation legislation – which received final approval Wednesday in the Commons by a vote of 204-78. But they've balked at supporting the $3 billion fund, creation of which is included in a related spending estimates bill.
The estimates are a confidence matter, which means Harper's minority government could fall if all three opposition parties were to vote against the bill.
Ignatieff told the Commons again Wednesday that bill amounts to writing "a blank cheque" for the government.
Moreover, he argued that the government already has $3 billion approved for infrastructure projects in last year's budget that it hasn't yet spent, suggesting that the prime minister is holding back the funds in a bid to "hide the size of his deficit."
Harper said the new fund is intended to ensure that money starts flowing before July towards infrastructure projects and other stimulus measures outlined in the budget.
"The country, other levels of government are waiting for this. I encourage the Liberal party to stop playing games and simply let the money flow into the economy," Harper said.
However, McCallum said the Liberals' demand for greater detail won't do anything to hold up the flow of money. The spending estimates bill is not scheduled to be put to a vote for another few weeks, which he said gives the government plenty of time to provide a list of departments and programs that are destined to get a share of the $3 billion.
"We can walk and chew gum. We can do things fast and we can do things accountably."
The Liberal motion, to be introduced Monday, is likely to receive support from the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, which have also slammed the government for trying to create an unaccountable "slush fund."
NDP Leader Jack Layton also demanded that the government spell out how it intends to spend the $3 billion. That earned him a stiff rebuke from Treasury Board President Vic Toews, who labelled Layton a "hypocrite" for simultaneously criticizing the fund and demanding immediate economic stimulus.
While the motion won't be binding on the government, McCallum said Liberals will be having discussions with the Tories to ensure that they'll comply.
Asked what Liberals will do if Harper flatly refuses to provide details in advance, McCallum said only: "We shall see."
For his part, Ignatieff seemed to play down the potential for a standoff that could force an election. He said Liberals are "in negotiations" with the government and added: "I'm confident, if they show any sense and good judgment, that we can work this out."
Harper last week warned that opposition refusal to approve creation of the fund would constitute defeat of his minority government.
"These are confidence measures. We are not messing around with this," the prime minister said.
"If the opposition doesn't like it, they will find themselves in an election."
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