Harper vows to end party subsidies

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is still committed to scrapping party subsidies but says it would be impossible unless he formed a majority government.

Conservative leader also uses N.B. stop to tout economic agenda

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper installs a panel in a van as he tours a factory during a campaign stop in Dieppe, N.B. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is still committed to scrapping party subsidies but says it would be impossible unless he formed a majority government.

The Conservative leader was asked during a news conference in Dieppe, N.B., on Friday whether he still endorses a move to eliminate the per-vote subsidy given to Canadian political parties.

Harper, who has long opposed the $2-per-vote subsidy, said political parties enjoy "enormous tax advantages" even without the additional subsidy and taxpayers should not financially support political parties that they don't support with their votes.

"I've wanted to change this. But we were very clear: unless we have a majority government we will never attempt to change it because we know in a minority government you can never move this forward," Harper said.

Harper tried to scrap the funds in 2008, a move that led to a revolt by all three opposition parties.

The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois were upset over the Harper government's attempt to yank the party subsidies and the lack of an economic stimulus plan in the 2008 fiscal update.

The Liberals and NDP struck a coalition, supported by the Bloc Québécois, to topple Harper's minority Conservative government. Harper out-manoeuvred the opposition by asking then Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament.

The Conservative leader said on Friday he would not cut the subsidy without discussing a transition plan with the other political parties to phase out the program.

"For the transition on the subsidy, we have in mind a transition of three years," Harper said.

"We will talk about what idea they may have in that regard. This is where we want to go and where we think voters want us to go."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused of Harper of wanting to bring into Canada "American-style attack politics."

"He's been doing it for 2½ years. This is Canada. We have a Canadian electoral system that limits the influence of big money in politics. He wants to get it out of the way and give us American-style attack politics."

Ignatieff said the federal system is fair, "economical," and creates a level playing field for all parties.

NDP Leader Jack Layton told reporters in Sudbury, Ont., that he prefers a mixed system of public contributions and direct subsidies, the CBC's Rosemary Barton reported. Layton told reporters Friday he doesn't want "big money" brought back in to the system.

The Chrétien government created the per-vote direct subsidy in 2004, when it banned corporate donations to parties and limited contributions to ridings or candidates to $1,000 per year. Individual donations were capped at $5,000, down from $10,000.

In 2006, the new Harper government dropped the individual limit to $1,000 (adjusted to inflation; it was $1,100 in 2010 and 2011) and imposed a complete ban on donations from corporations, unions and organizations.

Economic recovery 'top priority'

The Conservative leader's appearance in New Brunswick was intended to talk about his party's economic track record during a campaign event.

Harper was using his first campaign stop in New Brunswick to remind voters about economic measures first outlined in the budget, which was introduced before the campaign started.

The budget was introduced but never implemented before the election was called.

"Canada is emerging from the global recession at the front of the pack," Harper said.

Harper reiterated his budget commitment to extend a work-sharing initiative to allow for an extra 16 weeks.

The Conservative leader said the work-sharing initiative helps employees work part of a week while collecting Employment Insurance benefits on the other days.

"I have to tell you this program has been enormously successful in combating the effects of the recession in Canada," Harper said.

"Almost 280,000 jobs have been protected by this program, some right here in Moncton."

Harper also referred to a plan to extend an initiative for older workers for another two years. He said the program is intended to give workers in hard-hit communities a second chance at finding work. The Tory leader said the proposal has already helped 14,000 Canadians.

Harper also stressed his commitment to allow workers who pursue part-time studies access to interest-free Canada Student Loans.

All of these initiatives, he said, were intended to help the country's economic recovery, which he said is still fragile.

"The top priority for our government is protecting and creating Canadian jobs," Harper said.

"And these supports for workers are among the most important initiatives in the budget that will continue seeing us protect and create jobs."

With files from The Canadian Press