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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff takes questions after speaking to a luncheon audience hosted by the Saint John Board of Trade on Aug. 13, 2009. (Noel Chenier/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff takes questions after speaking to a luncheon audience hosted by the Saint John Board of Trade on Aug. 13, 2009. (Noel Chenier/The Canadian Press)

Liberals won't topple Tories over EI Add to ...

Employment insurance was the big issue in June as Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper locked horns in a classic minority Parliament power play, but Liberals now say it's just one file among many and EI will not trigger a fall vote.

After a flurry of news conferences and private meetings, the Liberal Leader and the Prime Minister agreed in June to a bipartisan panel on reforming Canada's safety net for the unemployed, and a summer election was avoided.

But Mr. Ignatieff's campaign co-chairman and a Liberal member of that panel are now saying that even if it fails to produce a deal, Liberals will not force an election on EI alone.

Liberal Senator David Smith, co-chairman of the national Liberal campaign, said EI is not a "defining issue" that merits bringing down the government.

That still leaves open the possibility of a no-confidence vote on other issues, such as the state of the economy, but the senior Liberal is clearly throwing cold water on election speculation as MPs prepare for next week's caucus retreat in Sudbury.

"I don't see an election being fought over unemployment insurance," said Mr. Smith, using the program's original name. "It's an important issue and it's an issue that we want to address … but I don't see that as the defining issue that would trigger an election."

The senator, who takes part in regular conference calls with senior Liberals across the country, went on to question the need for an election at this time. His comments are in sharp contrast to more hawkish statements coming from Liberals over the summer. As recently as Monday, the Liberal Party was sending out private talking points stating that "Stephen Harper's got to go."

Mr. Smith isn't using those talking points.

"Michael and the Liberal Party remain committed to wanting to see Parliament work, to want to hold them accountable. Does that mean, on every single issue, when you've got the NDP and Bloc [Québécois]voting on matters that could be deemed confidence to bring them down, that we have to push the button every time?" he asked, noting that polls consistently show Canadians do not want an election. "We just don't have to be in a constant shootout at the O.K. Corral for an election every time Parliament meets and there's a vote of substance in the House."

The senator's comments are the latest twist in the continuing political theatre over EI.

Mr. Ignatieff's approach to rattling sabres with the Prime Minister triggered much debate and second-guessing among Liberals as to the wisdom of the strategy. Subsequent polls showing a dip in Liberal support gave credence to Mr. Ignatieff's internal doubters.

A well-informed party source said disappointing internal polls have cooled the Liberals' enthusiasm for an election. Canadians, the source said, just don't grasp Mr. Ignatieff's vision for the country and have not warmed to him since he became leader. They see him as a status-quo politician, not a catalyst for change.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister also recently played down election talk and divisions over EI. He told reporters last week that the positions of both sides are "a bit different," but that EI reforms would be announced in the fall.

Marlene Jennings, who is one of three Liberal MPs on the six-person panel, agreed that an election will not be triggered solely on the issue of EI, and insisted that was never in the party's plans. She said the Conservatives are attempting to portray the Liberals as a single-issue party, when in fact the Official Opposition has a long list of concerns, including the economy, agriculture, the salmon shortage in British Columbia, consular cases, the H1N1 virus and medical isotopes.

Ms. Jennings said her side is acting in good faith on EI and has asked for costing on a range of possible options. She said it remains an important issue for many Canadians who do not qualify for EI.

"EI and accessibility to EI and regional fairness is important to Canadians, but there are a lot of other issues that are just as important," she said.

With a report from Michael Valpy

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