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Some premiers back PM in budget discussions

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper got political backing Friday from some of the country's premiers as he heads into the final stages of building the budget that will determine the fate of his government.

The Prime Minister even received a boost in his political struggle, when some of the provincial leaders said that defeating the federal government now is not in the public interest.

Mr. Harper left a two-day first ministers meeting with at least two premiers saying economic circumstances are so severe that the Liberal-NDP opposition coalition should not try to topple the Conservatives in a confidence vote on the Jan. 27 budget. Several premiers also pledged to back ideas for accelerated infrastructure spending and to help the unemployed.

The glaring exception to the positive chorus was Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who accused the Prime Minister of breaking his word to Quebeckers on fixing the fiscal imbalance.

Mr. Harper's goal for the meeting was to get the premiers' support on his budget measures to address the economic downturn. To that end, the leaders agreed to a series of principles that will speed up infrastructure funding to the provinces, doling it out over two years rather than seven. The government will also make funding more flexible and allot cash faster for projects in smaller communities.

“I think that all of the premiers understand that we are in a very dangerous time for the world economy, one that requires unprecedented collaboration,” Mr. Harper told reporters at the end of the meeting.

“I mentioned to them and to others on many occasions how impressed I have been … by the unprecedented collaboration that we are seeing at the international level to deal with that and I think it's critical that we make the same efforts in Canada.”

British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said Canadians will notice if their leaders fail to work together.

“If we fragment, we will have far more difficulty and we will be letting families down,” he said.

He also said the country does not need a vote right now.

“It is not time for an election; it is time for us all to put the politics aside and to think first about Canada.”

His remarks were taken up by Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, who called for political stability.

“I don't think Canadians, frankly, would countenance a partisan scrap right now, when people are worried about their mortgage, their pensions and their jobs.”

The premiers spent much of the day listening to presentations from key federal players, including Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, Transport Minister John Baird, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

However, the provinces did not get commitments for everything they wanted. For example, premiers like Newfoundland and Labrador's Danny Williams and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty seek an extension of benefits for workers, not simply more cash for job training. Ottawa is reportedly reticent to extend benefits because it would be difficult to roll them back when the economy turns around.

The one discordant note was uttered by an angry Mr. Charest, who fenced with the federal government over a recent decision to cap funding under the equalization program, which it had recently increased.

“Eighteen months later, he's broken his word and now changed his mind,” he said. “There's a majority of provinces today that are asking him to respect that word.”

He also took issue with federal spokespeople who said earlier in the conference that Mr. Charest's Finance Minister had called the changes reasonable.

“Anyone who is taking a statement by one of my ministers saying that we approved this is misrepresenting the position of the government of Quebec,” said Mr. Charest, who added that he made his displeasure known to Mr. Harper during the closed-door meeting.

“I made that point very clear this morning in the meeting.”

New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham said he understands Mr. Charest's concerns.

“There are differences of opinion around the equalization issue. I support what Premier Charest was attempting to do.”

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