Re-elected Canadian Premier Harper turns quickly to economy

Montreal – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, buoyed by gains in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, promptly announced an ambitious plan to tackle the financial crisis that has ravaged the neighbouring United States and now threatens Canada.

Harper, among the first world leaders to face voters since the ongoing economic panic started last month, said Wednesday that he intends to make the financial crisis a priority this week during talks with European Union leaders.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Canada’s oil capital, Calgary, Harper said that he plans to discuss the global financial woes with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and EU President Jose Manuel Barroso at the Canada-EU summit Friday in Montreal.

“At the summit we will also explore the economic partnership between us and the EU,” Harper said.

“The number-one job of the prime minister of Canada is to protect our country’s economy, our earnings, our savings and our jobs during a time of global economic uncertainty.”

Harper’s Conservatives came just 12 seats short of the 155 they needed for a majority government in the 308-seat House of Commons, as Canadians re-elected a minority Conservative administration.

Harper’s Conservative Party was elected in 143 districts, called ridings, winning 19 seats more than in the 2006 elections, according to final results announced Wednesday.

The opposition Liberals were elected in 76 ridings, 27 fewer than in 2006. The separatist Bloc Quebecois, which runs candidates only in the French-speaking province of Quebec, won 50 ridings, losing one seat, and the socialist New Democratic Party won 8 seats, increasing its total to 37.

Two independent candidates were also elected to the House of Commons.

During the election campaign, Harper, an economist by training, was attacked by opponents for his hands-off approach to the burgeoning financial crisis.

The meeting with EU leaders is part of Harper’s six-point plan to deal with the ongoing crisis. Just a day after his party won an enhanced minority in Parliament, Harper said his government will continue to work with other G7 nations to take “appropriate actions” to support Canada’s financial system.

“We’re looking constantly at what needs to be done to ensure the availability of credit for Canadian businesses, families and individuals,” Harper said.

At the same time, his government will make sure that Canadian banks are not put at a competitive disadvantage, Harper said, amid multibillion bailouts offered to European and US banks.

Don Drummond, chief economist at the Toronto Dominion Bank Financial Group, said that while Canadian financial institutions have fared much better than their US or European counterparts, Canada’s economy – heavily dependent on exports to the United States – is starting to feel the aftershocks of the US financial crisis.

“Forty-five per cent of the Canadian economy is exports, and three-quarters of that goes to the United States,” Drummond said. “We cannot possibly escape the malaise that is going on in the US economy and increasingly affecting other economies around the world.”

Canadian banks do not need US-style bailouts, but they do need the cost of borrowing to go down, Drummond said.

Harper said that Canada will attend a summit of G-20 finance ministers in early November in Brazil.

On the domestic front, Harper promised to organize a meeting with the heads of Canada’s provinces and territories to discuss the increasingly gloomy economic situation. (dpa)

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