Harper, Ignatieff to meet again after 'productive' talks

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet again Wednesday after holding two rounds of rare face-to-face talks that could determine whether Canadians go to the polls this summer.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen Monday in Ottawa, held a rare face-to-face meeting with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff on Tuesday ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet again Wednesday after holding two rounds of rare face-to-face talks that could determine whether Canadians go to the polls this summer.

Harper and Ignatieff met first in an hour-long discussion in Harper's Langevin Block office and then again at the prime minister's residence in what officials said were "productive" discussions.

"The prime minister and opposition leader Michael Ignatieff held a second productive meeting this evening. They agreed to speak again tomorrow morning," Harper press secretary Dimitri Soudas said, according to Reuters.

Following the first meeting, Kory Teneycke, Harper's communications director, told CBC News that the talks were "good and productive"

Earlier in the day, Ignatieff said he wanted "clarity" from Harper on four issues to avoid toppling the minority Conservative government in a confidence vote later this week over the Tories' latest economic progress report.

While the men were believed to be talking behind closed doors, MPs in the House mostly shouted. Although question period is renowned for its theatrics and frequent loudness, Tuesday's boisterous tone suggested the two parties, at least in public, were not ready to reach some level of accord to stave off another federal election just eight months from the last vote.

The latest economic progress report showed roughly 3,000 infrastructure projects across the country are getting underway as part of the government's $22.7-billion stimulus plan and that about 80 per cent of the plan's funding has already been allocated.

"They can't ask me to vote for money if they can't tell me how they've spent it already," Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff said he wants to get "clarity" from the government on questions surrounding:

  • The rate of stimulus spending included in last Thursday's progress report.
  • The government's plan to contain the ballooning deficit.
  • The government's plan to deal with Canada's medical isotopes shortage.
  • Details on additional employment insurance reforms.

"Let's get some explanations and let's then see whether there are gaps that can be narrowed," Ignatieff said. "I'm realistic — we're realistic, reasonable people. I certainly hope the prime minister is, too."

If the government isn't able to demonstrate its work in the areas, the Liberals may topple the minority Conservative government in a confidence vote slated for Friday in the House of Commons.

The NDP and Bloc Québécois have already said that they will reject the economic report.

"If it happens, well, we’ll be ready," Duceppe said. "If we don’t have an election, fine, great."

Liberals putting infrastructure projects at risk: Toews

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff leaves his meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Tuesday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

During a heated exchange in question period, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale accused the Conservatives of misleading Canadians by falsely suggesting a defeat in Friday's spending estimates vote would hold up previous stimulus commitments already passed in February and March.

In the meantime, he said the government left billions of approved funds idle last year.

"Conservatives allege, wrongly, that unless the estimates are approved on Friday, their stimulus project will grind to a halt, but that's not true," Goodale told the House.

Responding for the government, Treasury Secretary Vick Toews said if the Liberals voted no-confidence, they would scuttle Ottawa's negotiations for "thousands" of infrastructure agreements with provinces and municipalities.

"An irresponsible decision by the opposition to bring down this government will jeopardize our economy, will jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs across this country," Toews said to repeated shouts from across the aisle. "Shame on them."

EI main sticking point: Clement

In an interview Tuesday morning, Industry Minister Tony Clement told CBC News the main sticking point between the two parties will likely be employment insurance.

Ignatieff has proposed an immediate, temporary change to the EI system that would make people eligible for EI benefits if they've worked 360 hours in the previous 52 weeks — regardless of where they live.

The NDP and Bloc have called for the EI eligibility threshold to be expanded permanently, not just for as long as the current recession lasts.

Speaking outside the House of Commons, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Harper has reverted to Reform party-style "insulting" of the unemployed by saying EI benefits are a "big, fat cheque."

"No wonder he won't fix the system, he doesn't really believe in it," Layton told reporters.

But Harper has defended his government's EI system changes, including a $500-million program for retraining laid-off, long-tenured workers and an extension of EI benefits if applicants participate in longer-term training of up to two years.

"We've already said Mr. Ignatieff's plan — this 45-day work year — is not reasonable, in the best interests of Canadians, so we're sticking to … our position on that," Clement said.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe accused the Conservatives of misrepresenting the 360-hour threshold proposal to Canadians.

"They are lying, plain lying, this is why they didn't want to repeat it in the House," Duceppe told reporters.

Clement added the gap between the two parties on EI is not something that will likely be narrowed in four days. Ignatieff has said he was willing to extend the current session in Parliament.

Clement said the Conservatives do not want an election. "We want to continue with our economic action plan, which is working for Canada."

Ignatieff is creating a "crisis by threatening to derail the government as of Friday," he added.

The Liberal leader said the party is doing its job as the Opposition.

"We're trying to make sure that this Parliament works for Canadians and that we hold the government accountable," Ignatieff said.

With files from The Canadian Press