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Ignatieff rules out coalition with NDP, Bloc

OTTAWA - Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff moved Friday to reassure voters wary of another opposition coalition, vowing not to form any pact with the NDP or Bloc Quebecois.

Ignatieff dismissed Prime Minister Stephen Harper's warning that the Conservatives need a majority or the Liberals will try to form a coalition with the "socialists and separatists."

"The Liberal party will not agree to form a coalition," Ignatieff said flatly. "We do not support a coalition today or tomorrow."

He said that if he had supported a coalition rather than rejecting it last January: "I could be standing here as the prime minister of Canada."

Ignatieff promised to form a "compassionate, moderate government of the centre."

The Liberal leader also announced that a report by the parliamentary budget office proves the Conservatives grossly exaggerated the cost of a Liberal proposal to enhance employment insurance.

And he said that shows again that the Tories can't be trusted to work with the opposition parties in good faith.

The Liberals released the budget office report today, which puts the Liberal plan at $1.15 billion - far less than the $4 billion claimed by the Tories.

"We have worked in good faith with the (EI) committee and the Harper government, they introduced numbers which are not credible," he said.

The budget office analysis was conducted at the request of the Liberals, after the Tories refused to consider Ignatieff's proposal for single national EI eligibility threshold. They dismissed the idea as unaffordable.

But in the analysis, the budget office calls the government calculations "flawed" and "overstated." It says a more "reasonable" estimate is about one quarter the Tories' price tag.

Currently, there are 58 different thresholds for qualifying for EI benefits across the country, ranging from 420 to 700 hours of work depending on local unemployment rates.

Ignatieff wants to set a single national requirement of 360 hours of work.

As part of an eleventh-hour deal to avert a summer election, Ignatieff and Harper agreed last June to set up a bipartisan working group to explore the Liberal proposal and other possible EI reforms. But the group quickly became mired in squabbling and produced no results.

The Liberals finally walked away from the negotiations last week, shortly after Ignatieff denounced the talks as a "charade" and declared that Liberals will try to topple Harper's minority government at the earliest opportunity.

The government, which made no detailed proposals throughout the summer-long negotiations, has since announced it will introduce EI reforms to help long-tenured workers as soon as Parliament resumes next week.

According to the analysis, the government's $4 billion-plus price tag wrongly included unemployed people not intended to be covered by the Liberal proposal, such as new entrants and re-entrants to the labour force.

The government also tacked on $2 billion in long-term costs based on the theory that making it easier to qualify for EI would distort the labour market and eventually produce a two percentage point increase in the unemployment rate.

But the analysis points out that Ignatieff is proposing the 360-hour or nine-week threshold as a temporary measure only, to last about a year until the economy recovers sufficiently to start creating jobs again. Hence, it says there should be little long term impact on the labour market.

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