Harper hangs on as PM, shuts Parliament

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won a stay of political execution - at least until January.

Harper convinced Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to suspend Parliament on Thursday, delaying a non-confidence vote scheduled for Monday that would have brought down his beleaguered minority Conservative government.

The House of Commons has gone dark until Jan. 26, when Harper will return and present a federal budget the next day - followed by a confidence vote.

"Today's decision will give us an opportunity - I'm talking about all the parties - to focus on the economy and work together," the prime minister said outside the front door of Rideau Hall.

The decision also sets up the prospect of a fierce battle with the opposition coalition for public support over the coming weeks.

Jean agreed to Harper's unprecedented request after a face-to-face meeting at the vice-regal residence that lasted more than two hours.

Rather than parliamentary tradition, Harper pointed to public opinion polls as the source of government's ongoing legitimacy in the face of a stated absence of confidence in the House of Commons.

"This government was recently elected with a stronger mandate and, according to the polls that I've seen, the people of Canada believe that we should be able to work to fulfil our mandate," he said.

The decision pulls the teetering minority Conservative government back from the brink, at least for the moment.

"We must realize the enormity of what has happened here today," said Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, standing in the foyer of the Commons.

"For the first time in the history of Canada, the prime minister of Canada is running away from the Parliament of Canada."

All opposition leaders insisted they still intend to bring down the government. Dion said only a "monumental change" by Harper would have any hope of altering that.

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

"I do not see that changing," Layton said.

"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. That's denying about as fundamental a right as one has in a democracy."

The Bloc's Gilles Duceppe had a similar reaction. "We don't believe him and we don't have confidence in him."

But buying time may well work in the prime minister's favour, with cracks in the unwieldy alternative governing alliance are already evident.

At least two Liberal MPs suggested it's time to step back and reconsider the coalition.

Dion said Harper is putting partisan politics ahead of the best interests of Canadians, and accused him of "paying lip service to co-operation and consensus."

After the Oct. 14 election, Harper spoke of the need for all parties to work together for the common good.

But he then precipitated the crisis with the provocative economic update Nov. 27 that contained no stimulus package, killed public financing for federal political parties, and banned public sector unions from striking for two years.

The opposition coalition had asked Jean to refuse to prorogue, arguing that Harper no longer enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons.

A petition signed by 161 MPs went to the Governor General on Thursday morning stating that "a majority of Members of Parliament . . . believe that a viable alternative government can be formed."

The Conservatives hold just 143 of the 308 seats in the Commons.

The New York Times, moments after Thursday morning's announcement, reflected that sentiment: "Canadian leader shuts Parliament in bid to keep power," said the newspaper's online headline.

Prorogation ends a parliamentary session and allows the government to start again at a later date with a fresh throne speech. It typically happens when a government has exhausted its legislative agenda, not before it's even begun.

But it also limits the government's spending powers at a time of economic crisis.

Harper denied his government will be launching a full-scale public relations campaign over the Christmas season to bolster support for his wobbling minority.

"The government's work, my work, over the next few weeks will be focused almost exclusively on preparing the federal budget," he said.

"We're not going to have time to do much else. I hope the other parties will be concentrating on exactly the same thing."

Harper admitted no errors in judgment Thursday. Nor did he seek absolution during a nationally televised address on Wednesday.

And he once again condemned the participation of the Bloc Quebecois in supporting the formal Liberal-NDP coalition - despite the fact that he flirted with the separatist Bloc in 2004 as the Liberal government of Paul Martin was tottering.

A formal Liberal-NDP entente, supported by the Bloc, was forwarded to the Governor General this week stating the case that it can win the confidence of Canada's elected representatives and is prepared to govern if the Conservatives fall.

Liberal MP Derrick Lee, meanwhile, compared Harper's move to suspend Parliament to the burning of the Reichstag in Germany by the Nazis.