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Stimulus spending could be extended, John Baird says

Government House Leader John Baird lays out the Conservative agenda for the upcoming session of Parliament during an Ottawa news conference on Sept. 16, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Harper government has opened the door to extending stimulus funding beyond next March - a signal the Tories are well aware their electoral prospects are intricately tied up in how they handle the shaky economy.

In a news conference to highlight the fall Conservative agenda, Government House Leader John Baird backed away from previous rhetoric about a strict March 31 deadline for federal stimulus funding. Instead, he emphasized that the economy is still teetering and promised to take aim at jobs and growth.

"The next few months will be sharply focused on Canadians' No. 1 priority: jobs and the economy," he said. "The economic recovery remains fragile and it is increasingly clear that we are not out of the woods yet."

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The Conservatives tout themselves as the best stewards of the economy and they're keen to keep attention on their efforts. However, the immediate focus when Parliament resumes Monday will be the long-gun registry and a looming vote that could decide its fate as soon as Wednesday.

Mr. Baird acknowledged that Tory attempts to abolish the registry will likely fail. He blamed, in part, " the Toronto elites" who lead the opposition parties. His comment appeared clearly aimed at appealing to rural voters, many of whom bristle at registering hunting rifles - and being dictated to by city folk.

On the economy, Mr. Baird said cabinet ministers will travel around the country to see what needs to be done to keep things on a solid growth path. Extensions allowing the stimulus money to flow beyond March will be made based on the feedback the government receives, he said.

Municipalities have argued for months that some of the projects funded by Ottawa's $16-billion stimulus programs cannot possibly finish by March, because of unforeseen circumstances. Unless Ottawa allows some leeway, they fear they will be left carrying millions of dollars in construction costs incurred after the cut-off date.

In Owen Sound, Ont., for example, city officials say that if Ottawa and the Ontario government don't lighten up, they will have to raise property taxes by three per cent to cover off about $16-million in extra expenses, after discovering that their new recreation centre was being built on top of an aquifer.

Local MP Larry Miller - a Conservative in a riding that has occasionally voted Liberal in the past - has made no secret that he wants his government to show some sympathy. His seat is at risk if he doesn't make headway, said Michael Warren, a policy consultant who is involved in fundraising for the Owen Sound project.

"I can see a lot of communities across Canada being mad as hell if they're dumped with the extra millions" in construction costs, Mr. Warren said.

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Federal officials have been talking to their provincial counterparts over the summer about whether more flexibility is necessary, and how leeway could be granted without opening up the floodgates or prompting a backlash from projects that have gone to extremes to meet the March deadline.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has publicly recognized that some projects in flood-ravaged Saskatchewan may be deserving of an extension.

Liberal MP John McCallum said Ottawa owes it to municipalities to be clear about the rules immediately, so they can plan their city budgets properly.

"They should be told right now, so they don't have to engage in this frenzy of bidding wars," he said.

Mr. McCallum suggested extending the cut-off date for all stimulus funding by at least six months.

Mr. Baird discouraged talk of a fall election, saying no one wants one. It's time for steady and stable leadership, he said.

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He said security, including tough-on-crime measures and legislation to combat human smuggling will also be on the Conservative agenda for the fall sitting. But his attempts to strike a conciliatory tone quickly evaporated.

In calling Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton "the Toronto elites" responsible for preventing the Conservatives from dismantling the gun registry, Mr. Baird provoked a quick rise out of the opposition parties.

"Perhaps this is the new kind of decorum and high-sounding language that he's proposing to bring the House of Commons. If that's the case, then he is failing on Day 1," Mr. Layton said.

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