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Canadians elect fragile conservative government { January 23 2006 }

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Canadians elect fragile Conservative government
By FT reporters
Published: January 23 2006 23:00 | Last updated: January 24 2006 10:52

Canadians have elected their first Conservative government in 12 years, but gave the party a far-from-decisive mandate to push through its agenda of tax cuts, extra military spending and better ties with Washington.

Stephen Harper, an economist, who will lead the new government said he would immediately move to cut the unpopular goods and services tax from 7 per cent to 6 per cent, “reform the justice system to fight against crime and gangs”, and begin to allocate C$1,200 to Canadian families for each child they have needing day care.

He said he would also introduce a federal accountability act that will monitor government spending of taxpayers’ dollars in an effort to avoid the corruption scandals that have plagued the Liberals.

The Conservatives will have some 125 seats in the Canadian Parliament, 30 below the 155 that form a majority, but still 22 seats ahead of the ruling Liberals.

Final results for the 308-seat House showed Conservatives with 124 seats - 31 below the 155 needed to form a majority, but 21 ahead of the ruling Liberals, who won 103 seats.

Prime Minister Paul Martin conceded defeat and said he would not lead the Liberals into the next election. “I have just called Stephen Harper and I have offered him my congratulations,” Mr Martin said. “The people of Canada have chosen him to lead a minority government.”

Opinion polls in the closing days of the eight-week campaign had shown the Tories well ahead of the ruling Liberals. However, the Tories lost some ground in the final week of the campaign.

Mr Harper tapped into a widespread desire for change after 13 years of Liberal rule. Alain Gagnon, professor of political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal, said that “Harper has been brilliant at keeping at bay some of the most reactionary elements of his party”.

But Mr Harper made a potentially costly misstep last week by seeking to assure voters that a Conservative government would be kept in check by Liberal-appointed senators, judges and civil servants.

The Liberals seized on the comment as evidence of a Tory hidden agenda to politicise these institutions. Paul Martin, the current prime minister and Liberal leader, said over the weekend that “we have a party that wants to take this country to the far, far right of the US conservative movement”.

Mr Harper has set five priorities for a Tory government: a two-stage cut in the goods and services tax; correcting a “fiscal imbalance” by transferring a bigger share of federal tax revenues to the provinces; tougher measures against gun violence; a tax break to help parents pay for daycare; and a new “accountability” law for politicians and civil servants.

The Conservatives have also pledged a significant increase in defence spending. Mr Harper has indicated that he may revisit the Liberals’ decision not to take part in the US missile defence system. He opposes the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, but has stopped short of threatening to pull Canada out of the treaty.

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