Stephen Harper has tough words for coalition
Despite having to shut down Parliament to save his government from being toppled by a furious opposition coalition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled no punches when discussing his political rivals in a year-end interview with CTV Atlantic.
Harper accused the coalition of trying to "overthrow" the government, refused to answer critics' repeated demands to apologize for the fiscal update that sparked the turmoil on Parliament Hill, and defended his move to appoint senators to the upper chamber -- the same institute he has derided for being undemocratic.
Asked repeatedly whether he regretted unveiling a fiscal update that would have financially crippled the opposition parties, while saving roughly $27 million a year, Harper said he had acted in the best interest of Canadians.
He also suggested the anger displayed by the opposition was exaggerated, noting reports that the NDP and Bloc had talked about a possible coalition around the time of the election.
"We only found out later that they had been planning to overturn the results of the election ever since election night. But in terms of the political financing measures, we believe these are in the public interest, and the public overwhelmingly supports these measures," he said.
With Michael Ignatieff now holding the reins of the Liberal party, it's become uncertain whether the Liberal-NDP coalition will last until the government unveils its budget in late January.
The coalition needs the support of the Bloc Quebecois to survive, which has proven to be a sore point for many Canadians. In a recent Strategic Counsel poll, 58 per cent of voters across the country said they opposed the coalition.
Harper told CTV Atlantic he met with Ignatieff last week, but said he still knew little about the former Harvard scholar and author.
"I've read very little of what he's written. I certainly know he's a noted academic," he said.
Harper also invited Ignatieff to "work with the government on dealing with the economy because nobody wants Canadians to go back to the polls."
The Liberals and Conservatives are currently discussing the upcoming budget, set to be tabled on Jan. 27. Ignatieff has said the coalition could bring down the government unless the budget includes what he has described as an adequate stimulus package, to help soften the blow of the worldwide credit crisis.
Harper said Canadians should know exactly what the coalition would do as an alternative.
"I want to see exactly what it is the opposition would have us do in the budget. I mean, we're going to proceed with the budget one way or another. But I do think, particularly as these parties talk about getting together and trying to overturn the government, I think they should tell Canadians would exactly they would do instead," he said.
Tory Senate appointments
The prime minister also addressed the controversy surrounding his plans to fill 18 vacant Senate seats, despite his opposition to appointing senators without some form of democratic process.
Currently, senators are chosen by the prime minister and keep their appointments for 45 years, or until mandatory retirement at 75. Harper wants the provinces to elect their own choices, and also wants shortened terms of just eight years.
"In a way, it's a sad day for me," said Harper. "I've waited for three years. We've invited provinces to hold elections. We've put an electoral bill before the House of Commons. But for the most part, neither in Parliament nor in the provinces has there been any willingness to move forward on reform."
Currently, there are 58 Liberals and 20 Conservatives in the 105-seat Senate, after years of successive Liberal governments.
"We're now faced with a very simple choice. Does the government Canadians elected appoint those senators, or are they going to be appointed by a coalition that nobody elected?" said Harper.
When asked by CTV Atlantic's Steve Murphy whether "two wrongs make a right," Harper repeated that he was left with little choice.
"It's the only option. There is no prospect for electing these senators in the near term," he said.
Harper also said he faces increases pressure from within his own party to appoint senators who are loyal to the ruling government. In the past, the Conservatives have accused the Liberal-dominated Senate of stalling bills passed by the lower chamber.
Senators have defended their role as overseeing the chamber of sober second thought, saying they have a duty to carefully examine any legislation, rather than rubber-stamping bills and blindly supporting the government.
"Quite frankly, I think the public would prefer to see senators supporting the government they elected," said Harper.
Before the interview, the prime minister visited New Brunswick, where three soldiers killed in Afghanistan this past weekend were based.
He spent time at an elementary school where veterans of the Second World War shared their stories with students, and Harper gave his condolences to the families of the latest victims.
"It is always a tremendous tragedy when we lose people like this," he said.
Harper later spoke about the visit with CTV Atlantic and said it was important to be reminded of the sacrifices Canada's soldiers must sometimes make.
"These are the best that we have -- bright, ambitious young people who are willing to put their lives on the line for the country and their fellow human beings," he said.
"Whenever we get this news it's always terrible. And it always helps give me some perspective. Whenever we in politics complain about some of the difficulties of public life, we always have to remember that it's pretty trivial when compared to the sacrifices and risks that our men and women undertake on our behalf."