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Liberals divided over election call, Dhaliwal says

The Liberal party is a house divided over the timing of a federal election, with MPs leaving a caucus meeting Wednesday and acknowledging that there is no consensus in favour of a vote this spring.

Most Liberals boldly declared themselves personally prepared to fight the Conservatives in an immediate election - but some quickly added that many within the party disagreed behind closed doors.

"Some are ready, some said maybe it would be better in the fall," Heritage Minister Helene Scherrer said. "But nobody really knows, and there's no consensus around that. I've always said I'm ready."

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The reluctance does not appear confined to Quebec, where Liberals have suffered the most damage from the sponsorship scandal and are least likely to want to rush to the polls.

Nobody panned the idea of a spring election more aggressively than B.C.'s Herb Dhaliwal, a former cabinet minister who is leaving federal politics after being pushed aside by organizers of Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The Liberal party isn't ready for an election and is too deeply divided at the grassroots level to head to the polls, Mr. Dhaliwal said in a stinging rebuke of the Prime Minister's strategists.

"When you don't have the momentum, it's not the right time to go into an election," Mr. Dhaliwal said.

" I think we could have done a much better job in uniting the party. Having a party that's split and going into an election doesn't help us."

Some Liberals are whispering that Mr. Martin should clean house and replace those who advised him in handling the sponsorship scandal and who pushed for open riding nomination contests.

Chrétien-era loyalists such as Mr. Dhaliwal have said they felt the strategy in both cases was to target them. Several - again like Mr. Dhaliwal - opted to leave federal politics rather than fight for their seats.

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He said the party should hold off on an election for as long as 18 months while the Martin team gets its act together.

"Certainly if you've seen what's happened in the last three months, they've not done a very good job in advising (Mr. Martin). We've gone from 50 per cent in the polls to 35 per cent," he said.

"And I think one of the things he has to do is bring the party together, unite the party to ensure we can win the next election. If we don't go into the election as a united party, we're going to be in real trouble. And we'll have a minority government, at best."

John O'Reilly, head of the Liberals' 16-member central Ontario caucus, said last week that every MP in his area is against a spring election.

Martin strategists hope to hold a vote this spring if the polls are favourable enough.

The Prime Minister's team wants a fresh mandate, wants to clear the caucus of outgoing Chrétien-era MPs and wants the vote over before the start of a potentially explosive public inquiry into the sponsorship scandal and before the new Conservative Party has a chance to grow.

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However, he is continuing to be dogged by the sponsorship scandal at every turn.

On Tuesday, allegations surfaced from a 1995 memo that complains about the finance department at the time gave preferential treatment and, eventually, contracts, to Earnscliff Strategy Group, which has close ties to Mr. Martin.

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