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Stronach sees risk in forcing fast election

OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF

While her party pushes ahead to try to defeat the minority Liberal government, Conservative MP Belinda Stronach warned yesterday that forcing an election before the federal budget passes is a risky strategy that could backfire on the party.

Ms. Stronach said that critical portions of the budget -- particularly the billions being promised for municipal infrastructure -- are extremely important to individuals in her riding north of Toronto and other constituencies in the area.

"I do have a concern that voting against the entire budget will impact negatively in my riding," she said. "However, I think it's important to say that if this government is serious about doing some good and doing what's right in the public interest, they could pull out certain elements of the budget that all parties could move forward on and agree to."

A former rival to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for the party's top post, Ms. Stronach made the remarks just hours before entering the Conservatives' special caucus meeting last night.

The former auto parts executive would not say whether she thinks an election is necessary, preferring to make those views known at the caucus meeting. But she did say that members of her riding association are torn on the matter.

Many, she said, are skittish about having a vote now if it means that critical portions of the budget end up on the cutting room floor.

"They are disheartened at the corrupt Liberal government. They want to make a change," she said in response to questions. "But they're worried that some of the key programs promised that have been promised by this Liberal government will be compromised. That's the dilemma."

Ms. Stronach's riding of Newmarket-Aurora is located just outside of Toronto and includes many commuters who want to see more money spent on roads, public transit and other needs. The area is growing considerably, she added, and it needs the money that is included in the Liberal spending document.

Other officials in her riding expressed similar concerns. Other portions of the budget -- like cash for daycare -- are also seen as important.

"The infrastructure investment hasn't been made over the last 20 years," she said. "We need to catch up."

Ms. Stronach is a key member of the Conservative Ontario caucus, having run for the party leadership against Mr. Harper last year. Her views reflect those of many other Ontario members, who are quietly nervous about going to the polls now.

One strategist said Mr. Harper may be getting significant support from Alberta MPs for going toward an election now, but Ontario MPs are not as certain. Many western MPs, particularly those from Alberta, will have little difficulty winning their seats, said the source.

Ms. Stronach said she also spoke yesterday with Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory about the need to ensure the infrastructure money flows.

"I share John Tory's general concern," she said.

"We can't jeopardize the funding for the infrastructure programs, which include transportation, roads and public transit. So I do share his concerns."

Ms. Stronach is also seen as representing the more moderate wing of the party.

Earlier in the day, the party officials urged MPs to refrain from speaking out on what their constituents said.

"Rather than offering the feedback you heard from your constituents to members of the media, who will inevitably look for and amplify even the smallest contradictions between one MP and another, we are urging all caucus members to wait until the opportunity presented by this evening's caucus meeting to offer this feedback to your colleagues," an e-mail said.

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