Future of coalition, Dion's leadership uncertain

As members of Parliament head back to their ridings to explain the recent political machinations, the fate of a Liberal-NDP coalition appears to be up in the air, and questions swirl over the leadership of Stéphane Dion.
The Centennial Flame sits unlit after going out for an unknown reason following the prorogation of Parliament. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))
As members of Parliament head back to their ridings to explain the recent political machinations, the fate of a Liberal-NDP coalition appears to be up in the air, and questions swirl over the leadership of Stéphane Dion.

After only 16 days of the 40th Parliament, MPs were taking a political recess after the Governor General prorogued Parliament on Thursday. The decision avoided a confidence vote set for Monday that most likely would have toppled Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government and possibly given power to a Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the Bloc Québécois.

Parliament resumes on Jan. 26, with the presentation of the federal budget to be delivered the following day.

In the meantime, some Liberals are questioning whether Dion, who is slated to step down as party leader in May, should continue to hold on to the post.

The prorogation only gives the ruling Conservatives a reprieve until Parliament resumes. At that point, the Tory government could be brought down after it tables the budget, which would be a confidence vote, as all money bills are.

But if there was no viable coalition to take power following a no-confidence vote, Liberals would have to go to the polls with a leader scheduled to leave in months.

On Friday, Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy suggested the party might move up the date for changing leaders.

Some MPs have lost confidence in Dion's leadership and he has been widely criticized for the poor quality of his videotaped response to Harper's address to Canada on Wednesday night.

"I think there is a consensus building that they cannot go forward with Mr. Dion as leader," CBC's Keith Boag said.

"I think they are past considering whether Mr. Dion should lead them. They are thinking now, 'Well, do we replace him with an interim leader or permanent leader?'"

An EKOS poll conducted Thursday night found 60 per cent of Canadians surveyed think Dion should resign as Liberal leader in light of what has happened on Parliament Hill this week.

By comparison, 37 per cent of respondents said they think Harper should step down.

In total, a random sample of 1,502 Canadians aged 18 and over responded to the telephone survey. A sample of this size provides a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Campaigns to appeal for public support

Before Parliament resumes, the Tories are expected to wage an intensive anti-coalition campaign. Liberals are also expected to mount their own drive to garner support for their pact with the NDP.

The coalition sprang up after the Tories released an economic statement lambasted by the opposition parties. They accused Harper of doing nothing to address the current economic crisis and slammed what they saw as ideologically driven measures, such as the proposed elimination of subsidies for political parties, a three-year ban on the right of civil servants to strike and limits on the ability of women to sue for pay equity.

The Globe and Mail reported Friday that leadership contender Bob Rae will travel coast to coast to drum up support for the coalition. Rae has said that despite any concessions Harper may be willing to make on an economic stimulus, he can't be trusted and must go.

But cracks appeared to be forming in the Liberal party's commitment to the coalition. On Thursday, Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis told reporters that he didn't think the NDP-Liberal coalition would survive until Parliament resumes on Jan. 26.

Other MPs signalled they were willing to work with the Tories to focus on the economy.

"We have all taken a collective Valium, which is a good thing, and hopefully we can all focus on the issue at hand and start throwing lines of co-operation across the floor [of the House of Commons], which is what the country needs right now," said Victoria MP Keith Martin.

Toronto MP Judy Sgro said MPs in all parties have lost credibility in the eyes of Canadians by failing to focus on economic issues.

"None of us come out of this looking good, and we need to find some way of working together," she said.

Rae's leadership rival, Michael Ignatieff, who some say has been lukewarm over the coalition deal, suggested he'd be willing to listen to Harper.

"We will maintain the possibility of reaching out, but you cannot get this government to listen and respond unless the government is perfectly certain of the unity of purpose of this caucus."

Even Dion opened the door to possibly working with Harper, although he said there would have to be "monumental changes" in the prime minister's policies before it could happen.