Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Chastened Martin rejects coalition


Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin gets a hug from a member of his campaign staff upon his arrival in Ottawa, Canada, on Tuesday.


After his long-dominant Liberal Party lost outright control of parliament, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin promised he would move quickly to replace defeated Cabinet members and then assess whether his minority government can tackle the tough issues on Canada's national agenda.

"What we have is a stable minority government," Martin said at his first news conference following Monday's election. "I do believe we have a mandate from the people to act on the issues we set out."

The Liberals won 135 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, a net loss of 33 seats, to lose their majority for the first time since 1993. To pass legislation, the Liberals will need support from smaller parties, but Martin said he would seek their support issue-by-issue rather than negotiating to form a formal coalition.

The Conservative Party, which had nursed hopes of replacing the Liberals in power, won 99 seats. The separatist Bloc Quebecois won 54, gaining at the Liberals' expense in Quebec, while the left-wing New Democratic Party won 19 and an independent won a seat in British Columbia.

Turnout was an all-time low of 60 percent -- a signal, according to commentators, that many voters were unenthusiastic about their choices.

Andrew Cohen, a journalism professor at Carleton University, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that the election was "shallow, cynical and mean-spirited." He faulted Martin for "failing to offer the country imagination or inspiration."

The most clear-cut winner was the Bloc Quebecois, which entered the election holding 33 of Quebec's 75 seats. The Bloc's gains fueled talk of holding a vote in Quebec on whether the French-speaking province should secede.

However, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said the first step would be for separatists to take over the Quebec government from the Liberals, who do not need to call a provincial election until 2008.

"Step-by-step, we'll see what happens," Duceppe said.

Martin said the Liberals' setback in Quebec stemmed largely from a recently revealed financial scandal involving diversion of tens of millions of dollars in government funds to Liberal-aligned advertising firms in Quebec.

However, the prime minister said he expected the Bloc Quebecois -- and the New Democrats -- to work with him on the Liberals' top priority of strengthening the troubled national health insurance program.

First on his agenda, though, is the replacement of five defeated Cabinet members -- including Defense Minister David Pratt.

Defense policy could become a contentious issue for the minority government, especially if it needs support from the New Democratic Party.

The New Democrats' leader, Jack Layton, said he would press Martin to stay out of any discussions with the US on a possible Canadian role in a new continental missile defense system.

"Mr. Martin made promises -- keeping health care public, not being involved in `Star Wars,'" Layton said.

"We intend to hold him to those promises," he said.

Layton added that all parties should try to put partisan feuding aside, at least in the short term.

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