OTTAWA - For a few sinking moments Wednesday, it seemed like an election no one wants might actually be triggered by an issue few understand: softwood lumber, of all things.

The brief flurry of election speculation was sparked when the Harper government tabled a ways and means motion that will enable it to slap US$68 million worth of export duties on wood destined for the United States, as required by a recent international trade tribunal ruling.

Since they involve budgetary or taxation matters, ways and means motions are automatically life-or-death confidence votes for the government.

Hence, Parliament Hill was instantly abuzz with speculation that the motion was a "poison pill" -- a ploy designed to allow Prime Minister Stephen Harper to orchestrate the defeat of his minority government while blaming the ensuing election on the three opposition parties.

With the Liberals still wrestling with internal divisions and the fallout from Denis Coderre's spectacular resignation as Quebec lieutenant earlier this week, it seemed an opportune moment for Harper's Conservatives to engineer their own defeat.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who has promised to prop up the government at least until legislation beefing up jobless benefits is passed, was suddenly sounding less compliant.

"If you start putting poison pills in legislation, you're going to bring this place crashing down pretty darn quick," he warned.

His trade critic, Peter Julian, weighed in, saying it was "very doubtful" the NDP would support export charges that are the result of the Canada-U.S. softwood trade deal -- "the softwood sellout," as he called it.

However, government officials quickly doused any renewal of election fever.

They said the government will not put the motion to a vote unless it's certain it has the support of at least one opposition party -- that is, enough to avoid defeat.

"This is not some cute little trigger-your-own-election stunt," said one. "We're not going to move it until we know it's going to pass."

The official pointed out that ways and means motions are unique in that they don't have to be actually voted on to be put into effect. Tax measures contained in such motions are deemed to be in effect from the moment the motion is tabled.

Still, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day expressed hope that opposition parties will support the motion once they realize that the softwood deal will be "cratered" if the export duties are not imposed. Moreover, he said all provinces and the forestry industry support the deal.

Canada was ordered last February by the London Court of International Arbitration to pay US$68 million in compensation for shipping too much lumber to the U.S. The tribunal rejected earlier this week Canada's offer to pay only US$46.7 million, leaving no further avenue for appeal.

While an election over the complicated trade pact isn't in the cards, election-averse Canadians aren't out of the woods yet.

The government is expected to easily survive a Liberal non-confidence motion Thursday, with the help of the NDP. But Liberals will have three more opposition days before Christmas, any one or all of which could be used to propose more non-confidence motions.

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale said Wednesday his party "hasn't crossed those bridges yet" and will decide as each opposition day approaches whether to move non-confidence.

"I think we've demonstrated already that we're not reluctant at all to bring forward those confidence issues . . . We do not have confidence in this government and we'll continue to make that abundantly clear."