Michael Ignatieff set Canada on what could be an irreversible course toward a fall election, announcing the Liberal Party he's led for nine months will no longer prop up the minority Harper government - and instead will actively seek to defeat it.
One of the only apparent obstacles to an October or November ballot - the fourth in six years - is the fact the New Democratic Party is now reserving judgment on whether it will follow suit. Keeping the Conservatives afloat however would be a significant political departure for the NDP.
Mr. Ignatieff's decision, capping weeks of debate among election hawks and doves in Liberal ranks, is calculated to avoid the missteps of predecessor Stéphane Dion. The former leader, criticized as ineffectual, drew fire from some Liberals for letting the Tories rule too long unchecked in 2007 and 2008.
"Mr. Harper, your time is up," Mr. Ignatieff told cheering party MPs and senators, gathered in Sudbury, Ont., yesterday for an annual Liberal caucus retreat.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, trying to force the Liberals to back down, accused Mr. Ignatieff of lusting for power - warning an election could jeopardize the fragile economic recovery that's only now taking hold.
"I haven't met a single Canadian who's saying they want to see an election right now," Mr. Harper said during a visit to Calgary.
"I think the view of the vast majority of Canadians [is]that going through more political games, more political instability does not serve the country's interests right now."
Mr. Ignatieff's decision is intended to force final responsibility for triggering an election onto the shoulders of NDP Leader Jack Layton or Bloc Québécois chief Gilles Duceppe. The party has sometimes found itself the lone supporter of the Tory government and Mr. Ignatieff is determined to avoid a repeat of this morale-sapping scenario.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the party and its leader are relieved to jettison responsibility for keeping the Harper government in office.
"We all felt terrific because Mr. Ignatieff was saying we don't have to hold our noses. We don't have to do any of that any more," Mr. Rae said.
"We're just going to do and say exactly what we think and feel as Canadians and let the chips fall where they may when the House returns."
Mr. Ignatieff's didn't offer a central grand rationale for an election. Instead, he presented a potpourri of reasons for going to the polls now instead of waiting until the Tories table a 2010 budget.
He blamed Mr. Harper for the state of the economy, which has been sideswiped by the global recession, accusing the Tory leader of delivering to Canadians "the worst deficit in our history," "the worst unemployment record in two decades" and leading a government "that's ready to sacrifice national unity to stay in power."
The Liberals will use their first opportunity - later this month or in early October - to move a vote of non-confidence in the government. Opposition House Leader Ralph Goodale said this new stance also means the Liberals would vote against any other confidence bills or motions that came up in the interim.
The Liberals will need the support of both opposition parties, the Bloc and the New Democrats, in order to defeat the 143-MP Tory government and provoke an election.
But the NDP isn't ruling out supporting the Harper government, saying it could prop it up if Conservatives are willing to embrace NDP policies.
"If the government wants to start acting in the interests of Canadians, then perhaps we can avoid [Ottawa]foisting an election" on voters, NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair said.
NDP officials also privately outlined examples of where New Democrat parties have held the balance of power in minority Conservative provincial governments.
It's clear Mr. Layton, a former city councillor who thrives on the negotiations central to municipal politics, would like be a player in talks with Mr. Harper. What's far from certain however is whether the Tories could embrace NDP wish-list items such as regulating credit card interest rates or enacting insurance for pension plans.
Though New Democrats have kept previous Liberal governments in power in exchange for concessions, it's hard to see the NDP striking a similar deal with the Tories.
Mr. Layton's party prides itself on the number of times it has voted against the Harper government. Its political storyline is that the NDP is the only true alternative, or opposition, because the Conservatives and the Liberals are so alike.
The House of Commons resumes sitting Sept. 14, but unless the Tories pre-empt it the Liberals aren't expected to have an opportunity to introduce a non-confidence motion until late September or early October. Should they succeed, the Liberals envision a campaign to start in October with an election date set for Nov. 9 or Nov. 16.
Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe did not comment on Mr. Ignatieff's move but is scheduled to address the matter today. It's again unlikely the Bloc would back the Tories, who last fall attacked a failed coalition of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc as an unholy alliance with "socialists and separatists."
Earlier in the day, Mr. Harper spoke on a popular right-wing Calgary radio program hosted by Dave Rutherford, offering even stronger words against those attempting to bring down his government. He accused opposition parties of "wanting to roll the dice" to see if they can change the results of the last election and in the process jeopardize a battered economy that is now showing signs of recovery.
He suggested the Liberals might strike another deal with the NDP or separatist Bloc to gain power at a cost to Canada.
"The one thing that could screw this all up is political instability. We have a couple of parties in Parliament, the Bloc Québécois in particular, the NDP as well, they vote for an election every day of the week every time, they've got nothing to do other than fight election campaigns. There is a risk that at some point in the future, as we saw last year, that one of the major parties will try to appease those parties and do bad things to this country as a way of trying to get into office," Mr. Harper said.