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Ignatieff Harper
Ignatieff Harper

Harper, Ignatieff hash out EI deal in bid to stave off election Add to ...

Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff are working on a deal to spare Canadians from a summer election that would see them appoint a blue-ribbon panel to help resolve their differences over boosting employment insurance benefits.

They will meet again Wednesday to iron out the proposal and the idea must still be presented to and approved by their caucuses, a source told the Globe and Mail. The news comes after two separate meetings held between the two men Tuesday, characterized by their spokespersons as productive.

They held a one-hour meeting at 24 Sussex Dr. last night, which followed an earlier hour-long tête-à-tête in Mr. Harper's Langevin Block office across the road from Parliament Hill.

"The Prime Minister and Mr. Ignatieff had a second productive meeting, and will speak again tomorrow morning," Mr. Harper's spokesman, Kory Teneycke, said Tuesday night.

A senior Liberal echoed the sentiment, saying Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff had found common ground after the first meeting, but that a few issues have yet to be ironed out.

"If more can be done, then they're on the right track," said a Liberal source.

"'Productive' typically means forward," added Jill Fairbrother, a spokesman for the Liberal leader.

Mr. Ignatieff has laid out four conditions for his party's support in a Friday vote on the government's spending estimates, the key one being government action to help the unemployed. Mr. Ignatieff wants a country-wide standard of 360 hours of work to qualify for EI.

Qualification standards vary across the country. Mr. Harper has rejected the demand, but said earlier this week he would be happy to listen to Mr. Ignatieff's proposals.

At the earlier meeting, sources said, Mr. Ignatieff's chief political aide, Ian Davey, and Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, were on hand.

The meetings take down the temperature for an election that could be triggered Friday night if the opposition parties vote against the spending estimates.

While the afternoon meeting was taking place, there was little let-up in election posturing.

During Question Period, cabinet ministers road-tested attack points, saying that killing the government would interrupt the flow of stimulus money.

"If the opposition votes to bring down our government, negotiations on infrastructure contribution agreements between the various levels of government will immediately cease," Treasury Board President Vic Toews told the House of Commons.

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale shot back that the votes to take place on Friday will have no affect on stimulus, noting that the budget was approved in February, and that billions in approved expenditures are sitting idle.

Mr. Ignatieff's requirements to keep the government afloat also include a costing of the government's stimulus program; a detailed explanation of how the government will eliminate the deficit - pegged at $50-billion this year, and a plan to deal with the isotope shortage resulting from the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor.

The government provided some answers yesterday when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the government's plan to return to surplus rests on the fact that so much of the stimulus package is temporary.

"We have a plan," Mr. Flaherty told the House of Commons Finance Committee. "Temporary spending will end. We'll use the surplus first of all to pay off the deficits we incur now."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq appointed a special adviser to help the government decide on alternatives to using isotopes. The reactor, which makes one-third of the world's supply of medical isotopes, is expected to be out of commission for at least three months, and perhaps longer.

A poll earlier this week found that 78 per cent of Canadians surveyed are opposed to an election, while only 14 per cent said it's a good idea.

Nonethless, party Whip Rodger Cuzner told Liberal MPs not to travel this week.

Rocco Rossi, the party's national director, said: "The pieces are in place, including a plane."

He added that fundraising is going well, "so money is not an issue."

He also painted a rosy picture about nominations.

"Nominations may not all be announced, but we can expedite that process if need be," he said. "By all accounts, we're ready. I should stress, however, we truly hope it won't come to that."

Meanwhile, a Tory campaigner said he was asked on Monday to volunteer for the party's war room.

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