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Canadian leader heads off defeat

Baum is a Times staff writer.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday secured permission for a rare suspension of Parliament, a move that allows him to avoid an imminent vote that would have toppled his Conservative government, elected just two months ago.

But the narrow escape from a crisis that was largely self- inflicted has badly scarred a prime minister already widely regarded as a bully, and reawakened a national unity crisis in a country where regional grievances are sometimes dormant but easily stirred.

Governor General Michaelle Jean, the official head of state, who normally has only a ceremonial role, allowed Harper to suspend Parliament until Jan. 26, saving his government from defeat by a coalition of opposition parties that included one dedicated to splitting the province of Quebec from Canada.

Emerging from the governor general’s residence, Harper said he would use the breathing space to focus on the country’s economic troubles.

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Opposition leaders vowed to defeat his government at the first opportunity after Parliament returns.

That ended one of the most raucous political weeks in Canadian memory. It began when Harper, governing with only a minority of seats in Parliament, introduced an economic plan Saturday that ignored the global trend toward stimulating the economy with new public spending.

More provocatively, he used the occasion to tack on a highly partisan measure: cutting the $22-million public subsidy to political parties. With his own Conservative Party flush with cash, it was widely seen as an underhanded strike at opposition parties far more dependent on public funds.

Unlikely coalition

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Harper’s moves were seen as cynical and out of touch at a time when Canada is feeling the sting of the global economic crisis. And it prompted opposition parties to form an unlikely coalition to vote out the Conservatives and assume power, a legitimate parliamentary tactic.

“The coalition smelled blood,” political analyst Norman Spector said. “He wanted to finish them off. And now they want to finish him off.”

But many Canadians are uneasy about seeing a new government composed of a Liberal Party whose leader, Stephane Dion, had announced his decision to quit politics after being trounced in October’s elections, and the perennial also-ran socialist New Democrats.

Dion was widely derided after leading the Liberals to one of their worst electoral defeats, and even many in his own party blanched at the prospect of him now becoming prime minister. His perceived unsuitability to lead the country was reinforced by a botched videotaped speech to the nation aired Wednesday night in which he appeared off-center and overwrought.

The video, which the Liberals delivered to TV networks 10 minutes after its scheduled airtime, underscored the former university professor’s tortured English and generally off-putting communication skills. Prominent TV anchor Peter Mansbridge said the video looked as though it had been produced “on a cellphone.”

The coalition’s public relations woes were compounded by relying on support from the Bloc Quebecois, a party favoring the separation of Quebec. The prospect of a separatist party in power triggered outrage in the Conservative heartland of western Canada, which has long resented what it sees as Quebec’s disproportionate grip on federal power.

“Can you imagine the reaction in the United States if a group of politicians said they wanted to run Congress with a party that is dedicated to the breakup of the United States?” asked an incredulous Rick Bell, a political columnist for the Calgary Sun.

Harper exploited that western resentment, suggesting the Liberals were trying to gain power through stealth after failing at the ballot box. In his own nationally televised address Wednesday, he said he would use “every legal means to protect democracy,” implying his opponents were using undemocratic methods.

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Separation anxiety

He also hammered away at the prospect of “separatists” getting their hands on the levers of federal power. The attacks, in turn, angered many Quebecers, furious that the Bloc Quebecois representatives they had elected were being dismissed as illegitimate.

Harper was slightly more contrite Thursday as he stood in sleet outside the governor general’s residence, pledging to behave in a more consensual fashion. “Obviously we have to do some trust-building on both sides,” he said.

But Brian Masse, a member of Parliament from Windsor West in Ontario province, said in a phone interview that Harper would have difficulty regaining the confidence of coalition leaders by late January.

“By padlocking the doors of Parliament when so many people in Canada are facing challenges, losing their homes, their jobs or their pensions, he’s decided that his job is far more important” than theirs, said Masse, whose district is known as the auto manufacturing capital of Canada.

The cost to the country may be greater than to any one party. By demonizing the Bloc Quebecois, Harper has awakened Canada’s ghosts of regional grievance, reviving the national nightmare of a fracturing country.

“People say Canadian politics are boring,” Bell said. “Well, it isn’t, but maybe people feel a little bit of boring would be OK after all this.”

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Andrew Brooks in Toronto contributed to this report.


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