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Campaign machines ready as Tories seek to spin public opinion

Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley speaks with the media about the EI working group as fellow committee member Pierre Poilievre looks on during an availability outside the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

Adrian Wyld

Federal parties are warming up the engines on campaign machines even as Canada's political class scrambles to prove it's done all it can to prevent an election that nobody wants.

The Conservatives, who have paid a deposit allowing them to charter a jet on short notice, are preparing to ramp up staffing at their Ottawa campaign war room.

They're already holding campaign planning meetings, and Conservative mastermind Patrick Muttart, who left the Prime Minister's Office for a Chicago strategy firm, is readying to lend a hand.

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An October or November election appears increasingly likely after Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff announced on Tuesday that his party will no longer prop up the Tories but seek to defeat them as soon as possible.

But even as the Tories quietly gird for war, the Harper government is going to great lengths to show it has made best efforts to forestall what would be the fourth federal election in six years.

In a windowless Ottawa office Thursday, the Tories staged an unusual photo opportunity designed to blame the Liberals for the collapse of a bipartisan working group set up in June to stave off an election.

Back then, the Tories and Liberals had agreed to seek common ground on reforms to Employment Insurance that could help Canadians suffering from the impact of the global recession. But the working group, intended to show Canadians the rivals were serious about combatting the downturn rather than politicking, quickly ran aground.

This week, on the heels of their new resolve to defeat the government, the Liberals announced they would no longer attend the EI working group, saying it had achieved nothing and had been sabotaged by the Conservatives.

On Thursday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley decided to capitalize on this and cast the Tories as the party that had been stood up in the affair.

She summoned TV cameras and photographers to take pictures of her meeting on EI without the Liberals and lamenting the rival party's absence from the talks. Ms. Finley held this event in the same room the two parties had used in past weeks to discuss the now-aborted venture, making chit chat with fellow Tory MP Pierre Poilievre as the cameras rolled.

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At one point, journalists there to capture the scene asked Ms. Finley to speak up - but she replied that she had only intended to be seen rather than heard. "I was just trying to mouth it for you," she said.

An artificial dialogue then ensued for the cameras.

"I see here you wanted to get to work on helping the self-employed gain some sort of help under employment insurance," Mr. Poilievre, a member of the defunct EI working group, told Ms. Finley.

"That's what we wanted to work on with our colleagues in the other party - Mr. Ignatieff's members," he said.

Added Ms. Finley: "The ones that we wish were here."

Separately, New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton held a press conference to declare that he's still open to supporting the Tories - and averting an election - if the Conservatives are willing to embrace NDP policies.

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The only problem with this offer, Tories privately observed, is that the NDP wish list is stocked with policies that seem outside the Conservatives' political comfort zone, such as regulating credit card interest rates.

"There's not much to be gained playing footsie with Jack Layton," a senior Tory said.

NDP national party director Brad Lavigne said his party is now on "high alert for election preparation" even as it prefers to avoid one.

"We've got our plane and ground transportation secured," he said. "We've got our narrative for the campaign that we're going to be unveiling during the month of September."

He disputed the idea that the Tories and NDP could not find sufficient common ground to keep Canada's 40th Parliament alive.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are appointing staff to campaign posts and preparing to affix election signs to buses that would ferry Mr. Ignatieff around on the hustings. They're wiring up computers for their campaign war room and preparing to hold a candidates' college.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae defended the prospect of another election.

He dismissed Prime Minister Stephen Harper's efforts to suggest that the defeat of the Conservative government would hurt the economy, saying the country would be able to accommodate a national ballot.

"We're not a banana republic. We have votes, and ... [Mr.]Harper's not a generalissimo yet. He has to get used to living in a constitutional democracy - so he can put his medals and cap aside and come to work like the rest of us," Mr. Rae said.

The senior Liberal said it's dishonest of the Tories to say an election would disrupt Canada.

"Life will go on. The government will go forward. People will continue to get up in the morning and go to work."

With reports from Daniel Leblanc and Jane Taber

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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