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Liberals, NDP 'testing the ground' on joint anti-prorogation legislation

1. Plotting prorogation strategy. Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale and his NDP counterpart Libby Davies met for more than an hour last week. They were trying to determine if they could put together a joint strategy on limiting the Prime Minister's powers of prorogation.

The meeting was characterized as at the "discussion" phase with no decisions taken. Indeed, whether the parties will be able to agree on a joint proposal to take to the House when it returns in March is not yet clear.

"The idea of a joint bill was not discussed," a senior Liberal official says. "So in short, [we were]testing the ground to see if they would support us - and the feeling is they might, at least for some elements."

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The NDP's Libby Davies said today the two parties do "share a common goal in responding to how outraged Canadians feel about the abuse of power by Stephen Harper and how there can be some limits and how Parliament itself can be more involved in that."

There is no meeting planned for this week as the parties consider their options. Both party leaders have put forward proposals.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who is resting today after injuring his back this weekend, was first out of the gate with a proposal for a new law that would prevent the Prime Minister from shutting down Parliament and committees. It would involve a vote in the House of Commons that would be taken to the Governor-General for consideration.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, whose MPs are holding a roundtable on poverty and homelessness today, followed with a more detailed proposal requiring the approval of the House for a prorogation in the first year of a parliamentary session, or when a confidence matter is before the House. As well, the Liberals have suggested that committees continue to meet when Parliament is prorogued. This would mean that the all-party Commons committee investigating the Afghan detainee issue would be meeting now.

MPs were to return to work last Monday but the Prime Minister decided at the end of December to prorogue the House until after the Olympics.

2. No more Senate excuses. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says Stephen Harper can no longer blame the Liberals in the Senate for holding up his legislation. That "useful" excuse of Mr. Harper's, Mr. Ignatieff told CT V's Question Period yesterday, was taken away with the appointment Friday of five new Conservative senators. The move gives the Tories a plurality in the Red Chamber.

"No majority in the Senate. Is that a setback for you?" Question Period co-host Craig Oliver asked the Liberal Leader.

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"Well it, it actually deprives Stephen Harper of that excuse that was so useful to him over the years about the Liberal-dominated Senate holding up his crime bills," Mr. Ignatieff said.

He went on to defend the Senate, arguing that it fixes the mistakes of the elected legislators. However, he said he would support term limits in the Senate of 12 years.

This has been Liberal Party policy for "awhile," a Liberal official says. "He was just reiterating that."

Mr. Harper is proposing eight-year term limits but has not moved forward quickly on the issue of reform. Mr. Ignatieff was critical of that, too: "Harper's record on Senate reform has been very disappointing. If you were a Reform Conservative, you'd be spinning in your grave today because this guy promised he'd change the Senate and now he's packing it with his own people."

The Prime Minister's Office said Mr. Ignatieff's suggest the Liberal Leader is "committing to support the government's legislation on reforming the Senate." Spokesman Dimitri Soudas added: "Let's see how long it will take for Mr. Igantieff to flip flop on this issue as well."

(Photo: An Olympic flag flies under the Peace Tower today. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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