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Former MPs weren't wise to Liberal plan for economic panel

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The Liberal-led coalition ran into its first economic obstacle last night, as two prominent Bay Street advisers said they do not plan to assume so-called "wise men" roles.

Frank McKenna and John Manley - both former Liberal cabinet ministers who now work on Bay Street - indicated they do not intend to be part of an economic advisory panel the Liberals and NDP said would instill business confidence in a coalition government.

Late last night, sources close to Mr. McKenna confirmed that he had been asked to be part of the panel, but declined due to existing commitments with TD Financial Group, where he serves as deputy chair.

Mr. Manley said separately that he had not signed on.

"I've heard about this, but I haven't agreed to do anything," he said in a political podcast on globeandmail.com.

"And I have, quite frankly, no idea what the role of this panel would be intended to be, who it would advise, under what circumstances, how it relates to the different ministries, and whether the putative prime minister, Mr. [Stéphane] Dion, actually wants it, and would welcome the advice."

The proposed panel was said by Liberal strategists earlier this week to include Mr. Manley and Mr. McKenna, as well as former prime minister Paul Martin and Roy Romanow, a former NDP premier of Saskatchewan.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Romanow could not be reached for comment last night. Mr. Romanow's wife indicated that her husband was also surprised by a report that he'd be among the panel, saying "there was a little bit of a question mark" about where the information came from.

According to coalition sources, the idea of an advisory panel was raised to ensure domestic and international business confidence in a Liberal-NDP cabinet. Some business leaders have voiced concerns about NDP membership in a federal cabinet.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Manley wrote a total of 10 budgets between 1994 and 2003 as ministers of finance. Mr. Martin was prime minister of a minority government from 2004 to 2006.

Mr. Romanow, who was Saskatchewan's NDP premier between 1991 and 2001, chaired a commission on the future of health care at the request of prime minister Jean Chrétien in 2001 and 2002. He would act as a bridge between the NDP and the Liberals.

Meanwhile, party officials also struggled to add details to plans for an economic recovery program.

In Ottawa, the coalition's leaders continued to steer clear of specifics on their economic plan, saying it would be irresponsible to commit to a dollar figure before getting a look at the government's books.

"The amount we could afford to commit would be different with a balanced budget than if we have a $10-billion deficit," Liberal John McCallum, a former chief economist with the Royal Bank of Canada, said in an interview. "The prudent thing to do before committing to a dollar figure is to see where we're starting from. We can't do that until we take government."

Mr. McCallum also declined to say how quickly a coalition government would introduce a stimulus program, saying only that it would do so before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's proposed budget date at the end of January.

Like the government, the coalition said it would speed up infrastructure spending. The coalition said it would balance the budget within four years, while Mr. Flaherty projected a surplus in the next fiscal year and said he would do whatever it took to keep the country from entering a "structural" deficit.

The coalition's plan also promises aid for manufacturing, changes to the employment-insurance program and income support for older workers who lose their jobs near the end of their careers.

The uncertainty over the coalition's economic program raised concern in the business community, where several sectors - including automobiles, forestry and banking - await crucial policy decisions from Ottawa. In the United States, the incoming Obama administration has already laid out plans for an economic stimulus program to be launched in early 2009. Most other leading industrial countries have also unveiled emergency government spending packages.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce last night issued a scathing attack on all parties for not making the economy a greater priority.

"With so much at stake, all members of Parliament must set partisan manoeuvring aside and focus instead on measures to bolster investor and consumer confidence and restore economic growth," the business group, with 175,000 members, said in a statement.

"The current economic crisis is by far the most serious in over half a century. It threatens the survival of thousands of Canadian businesses and the well-being of millions of families."

Led by former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Perrin Beatty, the chamber called on the government to introduce economic stimulus measures before a scheduled Jan. 27 budget.

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