Canada's scandal-hit government set to fall

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA - Canada's scandal-tainted minority Liberal government is set to be defeated after 17 months in power, triggering the first winter election campaign the country has seen in more than 25 years.

The three opposition parties, which control a majority of seats in the House of Commons elected chamber, say Prime Minister Paul Martin is presiding over a corrupt administration and must be forced from power.

Parliament will vote at about 6.45pm (12.45pm NZT) tomorrow on an opposition motion which states "That this House has lost confidence in the Government."

Martin, who has no hope of winning, will announce the date of the following day and thereby kick off the campaign. The most likely date of the vote is either January 16 or January 23.

Opinion polls show the probable result is another minority Liberal government. Martin's party only holds 133 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons and has been relying on the left-leaning New Democrats to govern.

New Democrat Jack Layton declined to answer when asked whether he would work with the Liberals after the election.

"There are the hypothetical (questions) that we'll be asked I'm sure for weeks to come," Layton told CTV.

Layton and the other opposition leaders will focus on what they say is Liberal wrongdoing while Martin said he would point to the booming economy. Canada is the only member of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations to run a budget surplus, and unemployment is at a 30-year low.

"Under a Liberal government, our nation has gone from pauper to powerhouse," Martin said in a weekly radio address, reminding listeners that Finance Minister Ralph Goodale had earlier this month promised to introduce broad tax cuts.

"Unfortunately, the opposition is bent on forcing a holiday election, so most of those tax cuts won't get approved right now. But they'll be at the top of our agenda if we are re-elected," said Martin.

The government has announced spending measures worth more than $C10 billion (NZ$12.3 billion) in the last week or so, prompting the opposition to accuse Martin of trying to buy voter support.

The Liberals have been in power since late 1993 but never really recovered from revelations in February 2004 that some party officials had funnelled $C100 million from a government sponsorship fund to Liberal-friendly firms.

Martin -- who became prime minister in December 2003 -- lost his parliamentary majority in the June 2004 election amid anger over the scandal, which is still one of the driving factors in Canadian politics.

Stephen Harper, leader of the official opposition Conservatives, said last week the scandal showed the Liberals were linked to organized crime. He dismissed Martin's angry demands that he apologize for his comments.

"The Liberals need to apologize to Canadians for the sponsorship corruption, and the Liberal Party needs to come clean about the tens of millions of sponsorship dollars still missing," Harper said in a statement over the weekend.

The Conservatives say they will bring in deep tax cuts and crack down on violent crime if they win the election.

The last winter election in Canada was in February 1980, when the then minority Conservative government lost to the Liberals of Pierre Trudeau.

- REUTERS

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