January 16, 2006

Canada’s Conservatives vow to boost defense budget

By Randall Palmer

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick (Reuters) - The man likely to be
elected the new Canadian prime minister in a week's time,
Conservative leader Stephen Harper, said on Monday he wants to
boost defense spending enough for the world to take notice.

"I've made no secret of our desire to rebuild the Canadian
military to have the capacities of a sovereign nation," Harper
told supporters on a campaign swing through Atlantic Canada.
"To make foreign policy decisions that are not only independent
but are actually noticed by other powers around the world."

With just a week until next Monday's election, Harper's
Conservatives are enjoying a lead of eight to 13 percentage
points in the polls over the Liberals, who have been in power
since 1993. That margin puts them on the verge of winning a
majority in Parliament.

The Liberals of Prime Minister Paul Martin have been hit
hard by scandals, an ill-starred campaign and voter fatigue.

Martin insists he can win but on Monday even he seemed to
suggest voters will look elsewhere. In an interview with a
local Vancouver radio station he referred to a Conservative
legislator "who might well be the minister of justice" in the
next government.

Earlier in the day Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh became the
latest cabinet member admit the Liberals have a big challenge.

"There's no denying that there is this view in some
quarters of the country that they're looking for change," he
told reporters. "There's no question that we have a gap to make
up. There's a lot of fight left in us yet."

Harper's remarks on defense appeared partly to be in
response to frequent criticism from Martin that Conservative
policies would damage the country at home and abroad.

Harper said his commitments had all been detailed, dollar
by dollar. "I'll only make promises I know we can afford and we
can keep," he said.

Martin, who was finance minister in the 1990s, eliminated
the country's chronic budget deficits, partly through cutting
defense spending to levels that were criticized by NATO and the
United States.

He charges that Harper's plans would leave a C$22 billion
($19.5 billion) hole in the federal budget, which would require
major spending cuts.

"It is easy to make 196 promises but it is much harder to
make a choice, to choose between one program and another, one
service and another. I know this because I've been there," he
said in a speech in Vancouver.

Conservatives are watching to see if their poll lead will
start eroding as it did in the 2004 campaign, when they were
ahead by a smaller margin and ended up losing to Martin,
despite a corruption scandal that weakened the Liberals.

An SES/CPAC poll on Monday showed an eight-point lead,
unchanged from Sunday, while two others showed a widening gap.

Harper, 46, is trying to walk a fine line between being
upbeat and sounding too confident, thereby risking scaring away
voters leery of his party taking majority power.

He has been particularly keen in the past several days to
point to momentum in Quebec, where the Conservatives have
displaced the Liberals and are now second in the polls to the
Bloc Quebecois, which wants an independent Quebec.

"We are gaining support in every region of the country, and
we are pulling votes away from both the Liberals and the Bloc.
That's good for Quebec and that's good for Canada," he said.

The party has no seats in Quebec but that looks set to
change. A Leger poll on Monday for the French-language TVA
network gave the Conservative candidate in the electoral
district of Louis St. Laurent a huge lead over the Bloc.

(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Vancouver)