The two leading election contenders headed into the final weekend of the campaign fending off problems that have stuck with them from the beginning for Liberal Leader Paul Martin, the split left vote with the NDP, and for Stephen Harper, another controversial eruption from one of his candidates.
Mr. Martin acknowledged that the next government will likely be a minority and appealed to left-leaning Canadians to back him with a stop-Harper vote.
"In an election race as close as this one nationally, in an election race as close as this one in many, many ridings in Ontario, with the stakes as high as they are, the simple fact is that a vote for the NDP on Monday could very well make Stephen Harper prime minister on Tuesday," Mr. Martin said at a campaign stop in Belleville, Ont.
Mr. Harper's attacks on the Liberals were blunted as the Conservative Leader was forced to distance himself from comments made by MP Randy White, who said the Conservatives would not be shy about using the notwithstanding clause to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on issues such as gay rights.
The comments from one of the Conservatives' longest-serving MPs upset Mr. Harper's plan to cruise unscathed into the vote, as he moves to sterilize the campaign from further controversy by curtailing his exposure to the national media.
A video of Mr. White's comments, made to a documentary filmmaker a week before the election was called, was released yesterday. In it, he said that provisions in hate-crimes laws that forbid inciting hate based on sexual orientation would likely be repealed, and that a Conservative government would use the notwithstanding clause regularly to override court decisions if Parliament disagrees with them.
"If the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is going to be used as the crutch to carry forward all of the issues that social libertarians want, then there's got to be for us conservatives out there a way to put checks and balances in there," Mr. White said.
"I think you'll see more uses for the notwithstanding clause in the future."
As for the hate-crimes provisions, he said, "I'd repeal it in a minute."
He said he has "very little, if any," regard for what is happening in the courts. "I think our courts are much misguided and miss the conservative social reality of our times.
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"With three days to go in the campaign, the polls are telling us that this is the closest election since the 1970s. So close that for the first time in 25 years, there are those who say that we could be facing a minority government," Liberal Leader Paul Martin to supporters.
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Mr. Harper was asked repeatedly about Mr. White's views in one-on-one television interviews with local outlets throughout the day.
"That's not correct," Mr. Harper said when asked whether Mr. White's views reflect those of the party. "I know there are people in our party and other parties who have different views on this, but we've been clear; we're going to maintain rights protection against hate crimes for gays and lesbians."
He said Mr. White's comments are "unimportant," and the issue is a Liberal "fear tactic." Mr. White released a statement later in the day saying that the comments were only his opinions.
However, Mr. Martin seized on Mr. White's interview to charge that it is part of the Conservatives' hidden agenda to make "impulsive and widespread use" of the notwithstanding clause to erode minority rights.
"I never thought that I would see such a graphic admission of the Conservative Party's intentions, but we have. They can't be ignored. Not by me. Not by Mr. Harper. Not by Canadians," he said in Toronto.
Using the notwithstanding clause is a "slippery slope," he said. "Once you start to use it, then it's easier to use the next time and the next time. And sooner or later sooner or later we're going to find ourselves in a situation where the Charter of Rights will have very little meaning."
The Liberal Leader cited the comments throughout the day, as he warned that Conservative rule would hurt social programs, minority rights and the environment. He acknowledged explicitly for the first time that a minority government will likely be elected on Monday, and called for left-leaning voters to stop Mr. Harper.
Mr. Harper told interviewers yesterday that Mr. Martin will face serious questions about his leadership should he not win a majority on Monday.
"The Liberal Party replaced an electorally very successful leader with Mr. Martin," he said. "I think if Mr. Martin loses the majority, then I think obviously there will be all kinds of people in the Liberal Party looking at all kinds of options. It's hard to say how the Liberal Party will behave after it's debated." ends
As both Mr. Martin and New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton blitzed Ontario towns to battle for votes on the left, Mr. Martin argued that Liberals and New Democrats share the same values on social programs, even if they differ on fiscal policy.
"With three days to go in the campaign, the polls are telling us that this is the closest election since the 1970s. So close that for the first time in 25 years, there are those who say that we could be facing a minority government," he told a Liberal rally in Belleville.
Indeed, polls suggest that a minority government is all but a foregone conclusion, but it is not clear whether it would be the Liberals or the Conservatives.
An Ipsos-Reid poll of 2,000 Canadians conducted for The Globe and Mail this week showed the Liberals with a 32-31 lead over the Conservatives, with the NDP in a strong third at 17 per cent. While the Liberals have slid, the Conservatives have gained only modest ground, and the NDP support has remained solid.
Mr. Layton dismissed Mr. Martin's appeal for voters to leave the NDP, predicting that Canadians won't listen because they don't trust the ruling party. "You don't want to reward the Liberals for their broken promises," he said.
"He's got a lot of gall trying to convince Canadians that somehow now he is the great champion of all things progressive .-... when he spent 10 years tearing up progressive ideas that he himself had written in Red Books 1, 2 and 3."
The NDP has so far protected its support from being raided by the Liberals. In 2000, former Liberal leader Jean Chrιtien persuaded left-leaning voters to vote Grit and stop a Canadian Alliance victory, leaving the NDP with only 8.5 per cent of the vote.
But Mr. Layton blitzed Ontario yesterday as the campaign clock ticked down, hitting 10 cities from Timmins to Windsor over 18 hours, attempting to fend off Liberal raids and tip the balance for his party in tight three-way races across the seat-rich province.
The NDP vowed to make no pre-election deals with the Liberals about sharing power in a minority government or any party until the dust settles after June 28. "There are absolutely no conversations going on with the Liberals," Mr. Layton said.
The NDP also won something of a victory over the Liberals yesterday. Prominent members of the Liberal riding association in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, loyal to former Chrιtien cabinet minister Sheila Copps who was ousted in a bitter nomination battle with Transport Minister Tony Valeri, urged local Liberals to support the NDP.