Ottawa Prime Minister Paul Martin said yesterday there will be no talks toward a formal coalition with the NDP or other opposition parties, insisting he has a "stable" minority government and can move forward on his Liberal agenda.
Although he gave a nod to the difficulties of currying opposition favour to push his government program through Parliament, Mr. Martin said he has a mandate and enough consensus to proceed on the central elements of his platform health care, child care and a new deal for cities.
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"Lookit, I'm very realistic. This is not a majority government. This is what I believe to be a very stable, but nonetheless minority, government and we will work within that context. There have been no discussions, nor are we talking about coalitions or those kinds of agreements," he said during a news conference.
He has spoken to all three opposition leaders, he said, but only to congratulate them on their campaigns and express the need to work together.
One day after his Liberal Party won an unexpectedly strong minority government but was left without a single obvious partner to help command a majority in the 308-seat Commons, Mr. Martin said his core program has enough common ground to win support.
"If you take a look at it in terms of health care, in terms of child care, in terms of cities, I believe that that not only strikes a responsive chord with Canadians, but I think that it does fit within the overall perspective of most of the opposition parties."
But Mr. Martin's advisers acknowledge that discussions will have to come in the weeks and months ahead with the opposition parties to lay out the government's plans and get a sense of how much support for them exists.
Preliminary planning is already going on. Much of a health-care accord with the provinces the focus of a summit, likely in mid-August probably could be implemented without passing legislation, for example. Most of the health-care delivery issues such as home care and pharmacare programs lie with the provinces and could be funded through the usual budget process.
Similarly, a new child-care program, which an official yesterday called the "neglected jewel" of the Liberals' platform, would be built on an existing legal framework. And the plan to hand taxing power to municipalities would be done in a budget.
Indeed, it may be months before a vote of confidence in the Commons.
Yesterday, Conservative House Leader John Reynolds said his party also wants health-care change and said he is prepared to "support good legislation." The Conservatives would support Canadian participation in the U.S. missile defence plan, which the NDP and Bloc oppose. But it may not come to a fight in the Commons, because no legislation would be necessary for this, either.
"There's a lot that can be done," an official said.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, however, emphasized that Canadians should prepare for a leftward shift in Parliament, given that the Liberals and the NDP, together, hold half the seats in the House of Commons. But he warned that they will have to do more than simply shift left.
"[Mr. Martin] has only a minority and it now appears to me that, even with the NDP, that's not going to be quite enough to pass legislation," he said on his campaign plane in Calgary. "I think the Liberal Party will obviously now have to listen."
Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said yesterday running a minority government will take "hard work, a great deal of finesse and commitment to compromise and the building of the necessary consensus to do that which I think Canadians want us to do."
While she said she expects the government to be "quite productive," its success will depend in large part on the opposition parties.
"I think it will be a foolish opposition party that in any cavalier way would decide to bring down a government, and I think the expectation of Canadians is you get into Parliament and you work together on the issues that matter to us," she said.
Mr. Martin's Liberals took 135 seats and the NDP won 19 so together they remain one shy of the 155 required for a majority. So Mr. Martin must win votes from either the Bloc or the Conservatives, or independent Chuck Cadman, a former Conservative.
Canada's last minority government, headed by Tory Joe Clark, fell on a budget vote after nine months, but the history of minorities in federal and provincial legislatures suggests political considerations, more than policy, cause their demise. They have tended to fall when the government or the opposition sees a chance to win an election.
It is unlikely that any party will want a quick election rematch. The Bloc Québécois won a record-equalling 54-seat tally and would not want a new election any time soon. Liberals believe the same may be true of the NDP and the Conservatives.
"It has to be stable," a senior Liberal said. "Anyone perceived as not making this situation work will pay a big price with the public."
Mr. Martin said only that he will recall the Commons "in due course." Aides suggested to expect a Speech from the Throne in the fall, probably around Sept. 20, when the Commons would normally resume after summer break.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister's first job is to form a new cabinet shuffling his team and filling holes left by the defeat of several ministers.
Liberals suggest he is likely to choose a House Leader and ministers who can carry key files through a minority Commons, and possibly try to heal wounds in the party by bringing back some members from Jean Chrétien's cabinet Stéphane Dion, in particular.
"Putting together a cabinet is obviously the number-one priority, and then deciding upon the course of action," Mr. Martin said.
He added that the Bloc's strong showing was not support for sovereignty.
But he acknowledged that his government must better explain its actions to Quebeckers.
"There is no doubt that the sponsorship issue played a big part."
Mr. Martin said he had no regrets about his campaign, and no plans to changes his inner-circle of advisers.!
With reports from Brian Laghi, Rod Mickleburgh and Jill Mahoney