Jean Chrétien continued to put the elements in place for a possible fall election yesterday, stunning the New Democratic Party with the surprise defection of Saskatchewan MP Rick Laliberte.
Mr. Laliberte -- a soft-spoken Métis from the predominantly native Churchill River riding in Northern Saskatchewan -- emerged from the Liberals' weekly caucus meeting at Mr. Chrétien's side. He described his defection in part as a reaction to the emergence of the Canadian Alliance.
"The Alliance have taken stark positions that are contrary to my beliefs and my philosophy and I believe they have to be battled," he told reporters after the caucus meeting.
His defection from the NDP comes just two weeks after two Progressive Conservative MPs from Quebec crossed to the Liberals.
During the Liberal caucus meeting, the Prime Minister said that he alone bears the responsibility for choosing the date of the election. He tried to soothe some anxious Liberal MPs who would prefer not to go to the polls before the spring.
"When they say they are nervous, I say that's absolutely natural," he told reporters after the meeting. "We're all nervous. I am nervous. I was nervous the day that I called the election last time.
"I guess the other parties must have the same problem," he added. "They must be nervous, too."
In the House of Commons, Mr. Chrétien indirectly indicated that the election would not be called this weekend as some had speculated on Tuesday after he told cabinet to be prepared for an election as early as Nov. 6. He said that amendments to the employment insurance scheme making it easier for seasonal workers to receive benefits -- a key element in any Liberal election campaign -- would not be voted on until Monday. But he said the government would seek unanimous consent from MPs to have the changes passed in a single day, an indication that an election call might not be far off.
Later, Finance Minister Paul Martin indicated that the government might bring down a minibudget this fall -- a suggestion raised by Mr. Chrétien yesterday.
"I can assure you that we can be ready for any contingencies that might arise," Mr. Martin said.
A minibudget would allow the government to lay out its plans for the burgeoning federal surplus before a campaign gets under way.
Some provincial officials said yesterday that they had been told by federal officials that there was a moratorium on any federal spending announcements after Saturday.
Meanwhile, the looming possibility of an election has nudged Independent member of Parliament John Nunziata toward the Canadian Alliance. The Toronto MP yesterday suggested strongly that he would soon join the Alliance. Mr. Nunziata was first elected as a Liberal in 1984, but was expelled from the party by Mr. Chrétien in 1995 because of his dissent over the government's failure to abolish the goods and services tax.
"I like Stockwell Day. I like the fact that he represents change," said Mr. Nunziata, who indicated he needs to consult with his constituents before making a final decision.
But Mr. Laliberte's defection had the greater impact yesterday, because it focused attention on the Liberals' stealthy campaign to marginalize the NDP. Although the New Democrats got only 11 per cent of the vote in the last federal election, they cut deeply into the Liberals' traditional base in the Atlantic provinces.
In a written statement, NDP Leader Alexa McDonough said she was "profoundly disappointed" by Mr. Laliberte's decision.
She said that he was not respecting the "will of the electors in his riding."
Lorne Nystrom, the NDP's longest serving MP, told reporters, "I don't think he'll have any influence inside the Liberal Party."
Besides Mr. Laliberte, the Liberals have attracted a former provincial NDP minister, Bill Barlee, to run for them in British Columbia.