© THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
Coach Canada employee Vaughan Blancher prepares one of NDP leader Jack Layton's campaign buses at Coach Canada in Toronto Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
OTTAWA — The Harper government is set to fall Friday on a non-confidence motion, plunging the country into a fifth election campaign in just over 10 years and setting the stage for a vote in early May.
The Conservatives knew their days were numbered after the opposition panned this week’s federal budget. But they would have preferred to be brought down on the budget vote, helping them to campaign on their financial plan.
Instead, the Liberals have managed to delay the vote, making their non-confidence motion the election trigger. And the theme of that motion — respect for democracy and Parliament — is something the Tories don’t want in the spotlight.
The motion chides the government for showing contempt for Parliament by failing to fully disclose the multibillion-dollar costs of its tough-on-crime agenda, corporate tax cuts and plans to purchase stealth fighter jets.
While an election appears unavoidable, both the Conservatives and NDP claimed Wednesday that there was still a chance to steer clear.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois could yet change their minds on the budget.
“The opposition still have the opportunity to put Canadians’ interests first,” he said. “It is not too late for them to step back ... Our economy is not a political game.”
NDP Leader Jack Layton said he might still support the government if there are changes he can accept.
“There’s still a little bit of time,” he said. “I know that Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty are saying that they can’t possibly talk about amending the budget. I don’t know why. What’s the big obstacle to that? Others have done it before.”
Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government amended its budget in 2005 to meet NDP demands and avoid an election.
However, Layton said he didn’t hold out much hope that Harper would bend.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he “can no longer support a government that misleads Canadians, breaks the rules and weakens our democracy.”
“The Conservative government has misled the House and all Canadians by hiding the details of their core spending priorities from Parliament — and it means we can’t trust their budget numbers.”
The Liberal non-confidence motion reads: “That the House agrees with the finding of the standing committee on procedure and House affairs that the government is in contempt of Parliament, which is unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary history, and consequently, the House has lost confidence in the government.”
While the writ has yet to drop, the parties had all swung into election mode by midday Wednesday.
The NDP scheduled a formal unveiling of their campaign buses, while the Liberals dogged an event in Tory MP John Baird’s riding handing out campaign literature.
The Tories released yet another attack ad, accusing the opposition parties of imperilling the fragile economy by forcing an unnecessary election.
Since the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois had made their opposition to the budget clear from the get-go, the only chance the Tories had of salvaging their plan — and their hold on power — was the NDP.
The budget contained several nods in the New Democrats’ direction.
It included a $300-million top-up to benefits for the poorest of poor seniors. It put $400 million into a one-year program to help homeowners make their houses more energy efficient. And it set aside $9 million a year to entice doctors and nurses to move to rural areas.
For the NDP, it was not nearly enough. They had asked for $700 million for seniors, along with measures to train and hire thousands of new doctors and nurses.
The party also asked for assurances that the federal government would work toward an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan and elimination of the federal tax from home heating. The budget ignored those requests.