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Stephen Harper says some judges appointed by the federal Liberals are activists working to promote their own social agendas, statements that drew heavily from his tenure in the old Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.

The assertions by the Conservative Leader, whose party leads the public opinion polls, mark one of the few times during a tightly scripted election campaign that he has strayed far from the centre of the political highway.

They came a day after he said a Conservative majority government would be kept in check by the judges, senators and federal bureaucrats who owe their jobs to the Liberals.

"The courts are supposed to be independent," Mr. Harper said yesterday when questioned repeatedly by reporters in Toronto about his attempts to reassure those voters who still fear his party may change the Canadian social fabric.

"I am merely pointing out a fact that courts, for the most part, have been appointed by another political party. But courts are supposed to be independent regardless of who appoints them and they are an independent check and balance," he said.

When one reporter asked if he believed judges are activists with their own social agenda, Mr. Harper replied: "Some are, some aren't."

But later, in French, he softened any suggestion that he believes judges are politically partial, "The judges are independent, there is no doubt," he said. "Their independence is well protected by the law."

Mr. Harper's former Reform and Canadian Alliance allies have cried loudly about judicial activism, with many complaining that liberal judges have imposed such things as same-sex marriage upon an unwilling populace.

Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler responded with a scathing attack on Mr. Harper, arguing that his opinions are unfit for a man who aspires to lead the country.

"To me, [it]is irresponsible for a political leader to be impugning the independence and the integrity of the very institutions he should be protecting," he said.

"We need someone who will respect the rule of law, who will respect the independence of the judiciary."

Mr. Cotler said that the suggestion judges are Liberal-biased demeans and insults the judicial system. And he defended his own judicial appointments, saying they have been scrupulously apolitical.

In 2003, after courts in British Columbia and Ontario recognized the legality of same-sex unions, Mr. Harper, who was then the leader of the Canadian Alliance, accused former prime minister Jean Chrétien of stacking the courts with sympathetic judges for that very purpose.

"They didn't want to come to Parliament, they didn't want to go to the Canadian people and be honest that this is what they wanted," he said at that time of the Liberals. "They had the courts do it for them; they put the judges in they wanted, then they failed to appeal, failed to fight the case in court."

While the Conservatives have not promised any changes to the method of appointing judges to superior, appellate and federal courts as well as the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Harper says there is a particular type of person who would get those jobs if he were prime minister.

"What we will be looking for is what I call the judicial temperament," he told reporters. "And that is the ability to competently and shrewdly and wisely apply the laws that are passed by the Parliament of Canada."

But Mr. Harper's political foes said they remained concerned about his underlying beliefs and what he might do as prime minister.

In Ontario, Liberal Health Minister George Smitherman, who is gay, said that if the Conservatives emerge victorious after the votes are counted on Monday he will move up his wedding date with his partner.

When asked the about potential interference by a Liberal-dominated Senate into parliamentary affairs, Mr. Harper said he is concerned that the Senate would stymie Conservative government business as it has done in the past.

A controversial Mulroney-era bill on abortion was once blocked by the Senate, causing the government to abandon the legislation.

"The Liberal Senate in the past was extremely unco-operative when their party wasn't in power so it's a worry," Mr. Harper said.

"I hope that better judgment will prevail and the unelected Senate will play the role that historically it has played, which has been a useful technical role, but will not try to interfere with the democratic will of the elected House."

But, even as Mr. Harper was urging the Senate to co-operate with Parliament, Liberal Leader Paul Martin was saying his party's senators would block any attempt by the Conservatives to ban abortion, insisting that attacking abortion rights is what the Tories "have in mind."

The Liberals can expect to have a majority in the Senate for five more years, with 67 of the 105 seats now held by the Grits, compared to just 23 Conservatives.

"It's a position of the Liberal government, that's very clear. And certainly it's the way we would ask all Liberals to vote, senators and MPs," he told reporters at a campaign news conference in London, Ont.

Mr. Harper took his campaign to Liberal-dominated Toronto and Montreal yesterday to convince voters in Canada's largest cities that it is in their interests to be at the cabinet table of a Conservative-led government.

The Tory Leader told a tightly packed rally in a pub in the riding of St. Paul's, where news anchor Peter Kent is trying to upset popular Liberal Carolyn Bennett, that he is paying attention to their issues, including transit, urban violence and problems facing immigrants.

Flanked by former Mulroney cabinet ministers on a stage where Mr. Kent received the endorsement of CanWest vice-president David Asper, Mr. Harper urged Torontonians to take a look at his party.