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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper shake hands as they make their way to the House of Commons to deliver the federal budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday March 22, 2011. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper shake hands as they make their way to the House of Commons to deliver the federal budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday March 22, 2011. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Why a defeated budget helps Harper's hunt for a majority Add to ...

Although Canada is entering its fourth general election in seven years because all three national parties believe they will gain from it, in truth, Stephen Harper is the political leader who won the most on budget day.

Yes, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's dead-on-arrival budget contained a few sops to the NDP - help for low-income seniors through the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the renewal of a tax credit for energy-efficient home renovations. But the Conservatives were ready and willing to be defeated because it strengthens Prime Minister Stephen Harper's already robust position.

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His greatest concern was fighting an election not on which party can best manage the economy, which is the ground the Conservatives want to occupy, but on the question of integrity, where a raft of recent controversies have marred Tory fortunes.

Being defeated on the budget pushes the contempt-of-Parliament citations, the RCMP investigations, the charges of campaign-finance shenanigans, off the stage. Instead, the budget's promises of fiscal restraint plus targeted spending on seniors and families will be in the spotlight, where the Tories want them.

Structurally, the Conservatives also hold the advantage. The party is well funded - witness those relentless attack ads in the weeks leading up to today - and sitting at the high end of its range of popularity, with most polls showing the Conservatives enjoying the support of just under four in 10 voters.

If they can consolidate that support, and grow it even a little, the Tories have a decent shot at a net gain of 12 seats to bring them to the bare minimum required to achieve their coveted majority government.

Even if they fall short, the odds heavily favour a strong Conservative minority government after May 2 or May 9, the favoured election dates.

But Michael Ignatieff believes he can beat those odds.

The Liberals have been husbanding their financial resources, waiting for the campaign to get under way before joining the television advertising war. But they have enough money to reach their spending limits, their war room and riding campaigns are in place, and Mr. Ignatieff and his team used the leader's summer bus tour as a rehearsal for a national campaign.

To win, the Liberals must shake up voters' attitudes. They hope to achieve that by bringing attention back to what they call Tory sleaze and arrogance. They will seek to harden the Conservatives' image as a government that abuses power and wastes money on guns and jails rather than helping children and seniors. They hope that once voters start paying attention to Mr. Ignatieff, they will like him more. Their realistic goal: to push their vote from the mid-20s to the mid-30s and form a minority government.

The Bloc Québécois is, of course, willing to fight an election campaign whenever anybody else wants one. Its support in Quebec remains solid; it has little chance of losing many of the 47 seats it now holds, and a good chance of modest improvement.

As for the NDP, their calculations are more opaque. Under Jack Layton, the party has grown its caucus to 36 seats, and is hoping for a few gains. Mr. Layton maintains his health is "better by the day" despite recent hip surgery and treatment for prostate cancer. The party has targeted ridings in Toronto, Southwestern Ontario, the Prairies and Vancouver.

But Mr. Layton decided on Tuesday to join with the other parties to bring down the government not because he can improve his party's standing in the House, but because even his core supporters would have bolted had the NDP propped up the Conservatives again. As such, victory for the NDP in this election may consist of not doing any worse.

There is another scenario, in which the Liberals gain enough seats to come within spitting distance - which is what they would be tempted to do - of the Conservatives. In that case, the swift defeat of a Harper government on its Throne Speech - no proroguing allowed in that situation - could see Mr. Ignatieff become prime minister, supported either formally or informally by the NDP.

In that instance, Mr. Layton would hold more influence over the governing agenda than any NDP leader since David Lewis, who kept Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government alive from 1972 to 1974. The NDP could even become part of a coalition government.

The Conservatives will invoke the C-word endlessly; the Liberals will flee from it; Mr. Layton will offer his trademark coy smile.

But other than some kind of clear Conservative victory, a coalition is as likely a scenario as any other.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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