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Parliament shut down till Jan. 26

PM obtains Governor-General's consent to prorogue in face of bid to topple his minority government; opposition complains he's 'throwing the locks on' and 'running away'

Globe and Mail Update

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has obtained Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's consent to temporarily shut down Parliament, a move that allows him to avoid a confidence vote next week that he was expected to lose.

It's a blow for the Liberal-NDP coalition, backed by the separatist Bloc Québécois, that was seeking to replace the minority Conservative goverment.

The development buys time for Mr. Harper to assemble an economic package that he hopes will discourage the multiparty alliance from taking him down at that time.

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Emerging from Rideau Hall after more than two hours, Mr. Harper said Parliament will return on Jan. 26 and the first order of business will be the 2009 budget.

He grudgingly acknowledged he has to make peace with the opposition parties. "Obviously we have to do some trust-building here on both sides."

The Prime Minister said he will spend December and January hammering out the budget. "My work over the next few weeks will be focused almost exclusively on preparing the federal budget."

He added that he hoped the other parties would work with him. "Canadians expect us to get on with this."

Mr. Harper suggested that not all opposition MPs were happy with the coalition that sought to replace him. "I think there are many people in the opposition that were not entirely comfortable with a different path."

The Prime Minister also took time to admonish the Liberals and New Democrats for considering an alliance with the Bloc. In reference to the separatist party, he said: "My Canada includes Quebec, their Quebec does not include Canada."

Standing in the foyer of the House of Commons after Mr. Harper's announcement, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said: "We must realize the enormity of what has happened here today. For the first time in the history of Canada, the Prime Minister of Canada is running away from the Parliament of Canada."

All three opposition leaders said they still intend to bring down the government. Mr. Dion said only a "monumental change" on Mr. Harper's part would alter that.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the coalition will not be abandoning its accord over the next seven weeks while the Commons is shuttered.

"I cannot have confidence in a Prime Minister who would throw the locks on the door of this place, knowing that he's about to lose a vote in the House of Commons," Mr. Layton said. "That's denying about as fundamental a right as one has in a democracy."

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe reacted similarly. "We don't believe him and we don't have confidence in him."

The Prime Minister's bid to buy time, however, may work in his favour, with cracks in the coalition already emerging.

Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis wasted no time in calling Mr. Dion to be replaced before the House returns in January. "Who are we kidding? I think it's over," he said, heading into a closed door caucus meeting.

"To become Prime Minister at all costs? Where do we take the Liberal brand? ... The brand got hit. The brand is good. The CEO of the company screwed up."

The Scarborough MP emerged from caucus saying the party supports remaining in the coalition, but Mr. Dion must be replaced. "The party still wants the coalition to keep together. My constituents want Mr. Dion to go."

He said it's time to move the party's leadership race up - a conventon is slated for May - or find some way of making sure it has "a leader who can lead us" if there is an election in February or March.

Mr. Dion's botched video address was a clincher, he said: "We bombed."

Mr. Harper, who was forced to cancel an afternoon appearance in Woodstock, Ont., arrived in a motorcade after traveling literally across the street from his official residence, 24 Sussex Drive.

About 50 demonstrators greeted him as his black vehicle entered the gates of Rideau Hall, most of them cheering on the Prime Minister.

The vast majority appeared to be Tory staffers or Conservative Party members. They were chanting slogans such as "No secret deal!", a reference to the coalition-support agreement by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois that would oust Mr. Harper and install Mr. Dion in his place.

Demonstrator William McBeath, a staffer for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said he was rallying in front of Rideau Hall because he believes Mr. Harper has a right to continue governing. He noted the Tory Leader was only elected seven weeks ago.

"The fact now ... a coalition rejected by the voters could take power by allying themselves with the separatists is terribly offensive and I wanted to come out and do something about it."

William Beddoe, an actor, was among the minority of demonstrators rallying in favour of the coalition. He said the Prime Minister in a minority Parliament must demonstrate a willingness to find common ground with rival party leaders.

"I think it's time for Mr. Harper to step aside. I think the Conservatives would do well to find another leader who could engage with the other parties in Parliament and work cooperatively."

Mr. Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton had hoped to meet Ms. Jean later today to make their case for refusing the Tory bid to prorogue Parliament.

Last night, an unapologetic Prime Minister used a rare televised address to justify his bid to have Ms. Jean temporarily shut down Parliament, railing against separatists whom he says have no legitimate right to backstop a Liberal-NDP coalition.

Mr. Harper's harsh attack risks angering Quebec voters, many of whom have voted for the Bloc Québécois in the past and may resent the suggestion that BQ support is illegitimate.

In the five-minute speech where he referred to "separatists" on four different occasions, Mr. Harper vowed he would use all tools at his disposal to prevent the Conservatives' replacement. He did not, however, use the word "separatist" in the French version of his speech, preferring the less-inflammatory term, "souverainistes."

"At a time like this, a coalition with the separatists cannot help Canada," Mr. Harper said. "And the opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen."

Mr. Harper referred only peripherally to his government's role in contributing to the parliamentary crisis that currently engulfs the nation, saying the government has made some changes after criticism raised by the opposition in the wake of last week's fall economic update. He did not, however, apologize for portions of the update that would have eliminated millions in subsidies from political parties and removed the right to strike for civil servants. The government has since pulled both of those items off the table.

"The opposition is attempting to impose this deal without your say, without your consent and without your vote," the Prime Minister said. "This is no time for backroom deals with the separatists."

Political experts have argued, however, that Mr. Harper's attack on the Bloc Québécois may well offend a good number of Quebeckers, many of whom vote BQ.

In his response to the speech, Mr. Dion — who would become prime minister if the government is defeated — did not budge from his party's position that the Conservatives must go, adding that he wrote to Ms. Jean today asking her to refuse Mr. Harper's request to prorogue. He also defended the coalition, saying it will foster collaboration rather than "blind partisan feuding."

He also underlined the fact that he will only be in the prime minister's chair for the short time he is slated to remain Liberal leader. The party will elect a new leader this spring.

Mr. Harper is stepping up efforts to improve his image as a man of action on the economy in tough times, trying to beat back the Liberal-NDP coalition's central accusation that he's taken a stand-pat approach as a recession looms.

Yesterday he announced another round of meetings with premiers and territorial leaders on the economy — Jan. 16 in Ottawa — as well as a federal and provincial finance ministers meeting for Dec. 16 and 17 in Saskatoon.

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The Tories maintained their vigorous attack on the coalition's decision to seek formal backing from the Bloc Québécois for its survival in the House. One MP went so far as to accuse the Liberals of treason.

"They've actually written a deal giving the separatists a veto over every decision of the Canadian government," Bob Dechert said. "That is as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine."

However, this line of attack was somewhat blunted by the disclosure of efforts by members of Stockwell Day's Canadian Alliance in 2000 to ink a deal with the Bloc to form a minority coalition. Mr. Day denied knowledge of the proposal, which was made by Gerry Chipeur, a well-known lawyer with Conservative links.

Commenting on documents first released on globeandmail.com, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said he was asked to participate at the time in a scheme to propel Mr. Day to power in the event of a minority government.

"This proves that they are now being hypocritical. They pretend that they are outraged, when a good number of them have tried the same thing," Mr. Duceppe told reporters.

Indeed, the Liberals themselves were ready to pounce on the Conservatives in the spring of 2005 after Mr. Harper's party voted unsuccessfully with the Bloc Québécois to try to bring down the Liberals then led by Paul Martin. The Liberals found in focus group testing at the time that BQ participation in government to be abhorrent.

"Most people would actually believe that the Bloc shouldn't be allowed to have seats in Parliament," said David Herle, a former top aide to Mr. Martin.

In his response to the speech, Mr. Layton castigated Mr. Harper for refusing to offer any more details on a stimulus package and said it's time for him to step aside.

"He seems to be more interested in his job than protecting your job," Mr. Layton said.

He appealed to Ms. Jean to take note of the multiparty coalition's readiness to defeat the Tories and take power.

Mr. Duceppe, speaking last night, defended the alliance he signed with the Liberals and the NDP, saying it will reap many benefits for Quebec and urged Mr. Harper to give up avoiding a confidence vote that will surely defeat his government.

"I ask Mr. Harper to let the House of Commons vote, and let us finish off his government. And then, we will be able to focus all our energies against the economic crisis that has fallen upon us."

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In Quebec, Premier Jean Charest said after hearing Mr. Harper's televised address that Quebec doesn't need anti-sovereigntist rhetoric from the federal government while it copes with the global economic crisis.

"We must respect the choice that was made democratically by all citizens and all Quebecers," Mr. Charest said as he left a rally in Ste-Marie. "And there are, economically, things to settle. We should focus on that. It is the No. 1 priority. Quebec does not need political instability and rhetoric that divides people."

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said he was happy to hear a "calmer" tone from the federal political leaders last night, but insisted it is in the best interests of Canadians to let Stephen Harper's government bring in a budget next month.

"There are some serious problems we need to deal with," he told reporters in Victoria. "It is not helpful for us to see this kind of instability in the economic world we live in."

But even if the fall of the government can be avoided, the relationship between the two sides in Parliament appears to have been deeply poisoned.

In the Commons yesterday, Liberal MP Ken Dryden said the Prime Minister broke faith with Parliament in the economic update.

"How do we repair the irreparable?" Mr. Dryden asked. "To the Prime Minister to help him with his answer: Sorry, it is over; we cannot trust him any more. We need a new prime minister."

Meanwhile, the Liberals continued to insist publicly yesterday that they will remain together in support of the coalition although some admitted a few of their MPs are feeling heat from some of their constituents. Still, they believe it would be dangerous to retreat now.

"I don't believe a word the Prime Minister says any more," said Toronto Liberal MP Bob Rae.

Some Liberals, like Senator David Smith, a veteran adviser and election campaign strategist for three Liberal leaders, publicly indicated there is a slim possibility they would back off if Mr. Harper changes course.

With reports from Brian Laghi, Daniel Leblanc and Campbell Clark in Ottawa, Justine Hunter in Victoria and The Canadian Press

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