OTTAWA (Reuters) - Although Canada’s minority Conservative government looks to have avoided defeat over its budget, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not be able to relax for too long before talk of an election starts to heat up again.
Michael Ignatieff, the new and assertive leader of the opposition Liberals, outlined a series of conditions on Wednesday for backing the budget, ensuring the document was likely to be adopted by Parliament.
The decision keeps the Conservatives in power for the time being, but whether the spirit of co-operation can last long is open to question. All three opposition parties say they cannot trust Harper and complain he has poisoned the political atmosphere in Parliament.
“The gap between promise and performance in this government has been so large that you could drive an 18-wheeler through it,” senior Liberal legislator David McGuinty told reporters minutes after Ignatieff had spoken. “Mr Harper has to understand that he’s on probation right now.”
The Liberals’ confident tone is remarkable, given that in last October’s election, under previous leader Stephane Dion, the party put in one of its worst ever performances.
One of the many reasons for the poor showing was the fact that the Liberals — short of money, dispirited and keen to avoid a new election while trailing in the polls — often backed the Conservatives on key confidence votes, giving an impression of weakness.
Although Ignatieff has much less time for compromise, he, like Dion before him, is again backing the government. The leaders of both other opposition parties mocked his decision and predicted Ignatieff would continue to find reasons to support Harper.
“I think, realistically, the next window for an election is probably the fall,” said pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research.
Harper said last week he wanted to work with the opposition for a couple of years to deal with the effects of the global economic crisis but insiders think an election could well come before then.
“I don’t see why they’d try to bring us down until the next budget (likely in March 2010). I think we’ll be all right until then,” one well-placed Conservative told Reuters.
A federal vote next spring would be the third in just over four years.
The Conservatives won the January 2006 election with a minority of seats in the House of Commons, then strengthened that minority in the October 14 vote last year.
But they quickly came under attack for a fiscal update that critics slammed for not addressing the economic downturn and for a series of political plans that a furious opposition said were purely partisan.
The three opposition parties agreed on Dec 1 to form a coalition and would have defeated the government had Harper not managed to have Parliament temporarily suspended in December.
However, the coalition idea proved unpopular with the public because it would have relied on support from the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Ignatieff, who replaced Dion on December 10, made it clear on Wednesday that the coalition idea was dormant, thereby distancing himself from a vote-losing proposition.
Polls show the Liberals still trailing the Conservatives. Ideally, Ignatieff would now take the time needed to rebuild his party, but he knows he cannot afford to let Harper remain unchallenged for too long.
“They (the Conservatives) have to govern for a long enough time to appear legitimate in the eyes of the public. Ignatieff has a tricky calculation to make in addition to all those organizational and financial (hurdles),” said Paul Thomas, a professor of politics at the University of Manitoba.
“If he waits too long, then Harper begins to look like a prime minister again and not the political operator who avoided an accident of his own making,” he told Reuters, saying he thought Harper could last another year before an election.
Ignatieff’s ideal scenario would be to let Harper tackle a rapidly souring economy and take the blame for any bad news that follows. Then, with Liberal fortunes revived, he could move to bring down the government.
“If I were designing a political strategy ... I’d say I don’t think it’s a bad time to have the Conservatives closely associated with a very, very tough recession,” said former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister John Manley.
“From Mr. Ignatieff’s point of view, there may be some advantages in leaving the government to govern for a period of time,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Nanos said the Conservatives could be relying on Ignatieff’s relative inexperience to trip him up in the months to come.
“Why would they provoke an election now? There’s no time for Michael Ignatieff to make a mistake. They want him sitting in the chair for at least a little while to see if they can set a trap,” he said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson