Notwithstanding rampant election fever on Parliament Hill, it is not yet inevitable that Canada will head to the polls this spring.
There is still one plausible scenario that could see Stephen Harper’s minority government survive this month’s dual parliamentary hurdles.
Presented with a budget that nods in the direction of their demands, either the Bloc Québécois or the NDP, or both, could decide to extend the government’s life.
NDP Leader Jack Layton in particular has been blowing hot and cold on the prospects of an election for weeks.
He has put forward an elastic list of demands and steadfastly refused to state a bottom line. Chances are that bottom line is now a bit higher than when the New Democrat wish list was originally drafted. Over that time the political costs of supporting the government have gone up.
In the lead-up to the budget, there has been a systematic deterioration in the relationship between the minority government and the opposition parties. Not since the 2008 parliamentary crisis has the animosity between the Conservatives and their House of Commons critics run as high.
It is virtually certain that the Conservatives will eventually be found in contempt of Parliament.
That debate will likely morph into a confidence issue.
If it does come to that, any opposition party that supports the budget would presumably also have to sit on its hands and abstain from voting on the confidence motion.
It would be counter-productive to judge that, on balance, the Conservative budget is worth supporting only to turn around and quickly help bring down the minority government that authored it.
One way or another, the week is lining up to be a win-win for the Conservatives.
Under the government defeat scenario, Harper would head for the polls next weekend with a net edge in voting intentions, and a budget that was crafted with a potential campaign in mind.
While the Conservatives have maintained that they have no appetite for a spring campaign, polls indicate that the climate is at least as propitious to a Harper victory as when he last took matters into his own hands and called an election in the late summer of 2008.
A spring vote would be his to lose and a governing majority could be attainable.
But if the government does survive its budget, it will be deemed a political success and the opposition’s loud barks over the Conservatives’ cavalier approach to the minority Parliament will have been shown to have no bite.
The fall calendar is crowded with provincial elections. If they survive today’s budget, the Conservatives will likely get to rule for another year and do so in the face of a demoralized opposition.
The NDP’s last rescue mission of the minority Parliament in 2009 did little to improve its fortunes. At best it earned the party 15 brief minutes of political fame.
Another reprieve for the government might give Layton more time to restore his health (or quit), but there is little reason to believe it would significantly alter the dynamics of the federal scene, and there is no guarantee that the NDP’s position would not deteriorate further.
As for the Liberals, it is hard to ascertain whether it is the prospect of another year in opposition or that of another 12 months under their current leader that convinced them to accept the risk of a historic defeat in a spring campaign rather than carry on in Parliament.
The intoxicating scent of a spring election could still evaporate but opposition hangovers will linger.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for Torstar Syndication Services.