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PM begins juggling opposition

OTTAWA

Martin got an illustration of the stress he faces in running a minority government yesterday when NDP Leader Jack Layton pressed him in a personal meeting to reject support of the U.S. missile-defence plan.

The Prime Minister began the task of juggling the demands of opposition parties by meeting individually with Mr. Layton and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper at the PM's official residence.

The June federal election produced Canada's first minority government in 25 years.

A blunt-speaking Mr. Layton said after his meeting that the New Democrats will continue to loudly oppose the missile project.

"We intend to press this issue very hard," Mr. Layton said. "The Prime Minister understood that we would be doing that."

Asked whether he would push forward a no-confidence motion to bring down the government should Mr. Martin agree to back the plan, Mr. Layton shied away from providing a direct answer.

Both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois oppose the idea of supporting the military plan. However, the Conservatives are more likely to support it, meaning it might be difficult to bring the government down over the idea.

Mr. Layton said the two parties have common ground in other areas. For example, the NDP supports Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh's concern about creeping privatization within the health-care system.

"We want to make sure there is some action behind those words, and we underlined the importance of that."

Mr. Layton added that the Prime Minister had little new to say about the government's program, but that they made progress and he expected they would meet again.

Mr. Layton also said he raised the issue of changing the electoral system to make way for proportional representation. He said Mr. Martin responded in a general way.

Mr. Harper would not comment on the meeting.

Meanwhile yesterday, Liberal cabinet ministers and MPs played a round of golf in nearby Gatineau, kicking off their annual summer caucus retreat, which begins in earnest today. Mr. Martin, who did not play golf, will address the Liberal caucus tomorrow, telling caucus members that a health-care deal with the provinces and a new child-care package are his priorities.

Also yesterday, national Liberal caucus chairman Andy Savoy, a New Brunswick MP, said the approaching session will be a challenge as the government must seek co-operation with the opposition parties to get through its agenda.

He also promised that Liberal MPs will be "engaged." Many of them had long complained that former prime minister Jean Chrétien and his aides failed to include them in decision-making and legislative matters.

The PM has promised to address the so-called democratic deficit, and his team must now ensure, especially in this minority situation, that the caucus remains united to get his legislation passed in the House. Government House Leader Tony Valeri, who has the tricky job of shepherding the Martin agenda through the House, said yesterday he will approach the situation with collaboration and co-operation.

"We have to be able to demonstrate that we can make it work," he said.

But deputy House leader Mauril Bélanger put it succinctly, saying that for the minority to work, the government is going to have to be "nice to people."

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