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A combination photograph of NDP Leader Jack Layton and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (The Canadian Press)
A combination photograph of NDP Leader Jack Layton and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (The Canadian Press)

Ottawa Notebook

Grits dismiss NDP-Tory détente as electioneering Add to ...

Scott Brison isn't buying the new talk of "common ground" between the Conservative government and the NDP.

The Liberal finance critic insists the suggestions of Tory-NDP co-operation in areas like seniors policy and helping the unemployed has more to do with election timing.

"Both the NDP and the Conservatives are playing games on this," he said. "There's no common ground between those two parties except to avoid an election at any cost."

Mr. Brison was reacting to comments from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair, who both listed several areas of common ground that emerged from their private discussion on the 2011 budget.

Both Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Mulcair also stressed, however, that there are no assurances the NDP will vote for the next budget. The issue of corporate tax cuts is likely to be the largest hurdle to an agreement.

Casual observers of federal politics could be forgiven if the recent rhetoric flowing from Ottawa leaves them slightly confused.

Since the October, 2008, election, the Opposition Liberals have switched positions several times on the matter of whether they are aggressively attempting to defeat the government. Early on, the Liberals supported a plan to defeat the Conservatives and form a coalition government with the NDP.

Then the Liberals switched gears, abandoned the NDP and supported the January, 2009, Conservative budget.

By August of 2009, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff surprised some in his own ranks by announcing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's time "was up," and that the Liberals would push hard to defeat the government that fall.

The NDP chose not to play along, allowing the government to survive. At the time, the NDP cited the need to approve increased employment-insurance benefits. Popular support for the Liberals tumbled, leading Mr. Ignatieff to acknowledge his approach was the wrong one and that Canadians did not want an election.

That position held until Mr. Ignatieff's 2010 year-end interviews, in which he appears to have reverted to August, 2009, again with heightened election talk.

The big question now is what will happen to the Liberal poll numbers. Will voters once again punish Mr. Ignatieff for advocating an election or will they support his view that one is needed?

Pollster Nik Nanos says the Liberal positioning appears to be aimed at making Mr. Ignatieff look like a "strong" leader, but being strong on an election can be a hard sell with voters.

Mr. Nanos said Canadians rarely want an election, especially when they are of the view that one is unlikely to lead to much change from the status quo. Mr. Nanos said the Liberals appear to be hoping they can oppose the Conservatives in Parliament and count on either the NDP or the Bloc Québécois to ensure an election is avoided.

"We should really delineate between tough talk and the ability to deliver based on that tough talk," he said. "I think for the Liberals, they can talk tough knowing that it's unlikely that there will be an election. But if someone called their bluff, it would be a difficult election for them."

Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker agrees that the Liberals have no reason to want an election.

"The Liberals are in a particularly weakened state right now," he said. "For the Liberals, the problem that they have when they get in a situation where the NDP and the Tories get together is it starts to make the Liberals look a little irrelevant. Of course, they can position themselves as the true opposition, but the problem that the progressive side of the political agenda has is that it's all over the map."

Mr. Bricker says the Conservatives have a strong lock on centre-right voters, while centre-left voters are split between the Liberals, the Bloc, the NDP and the Greens.

"So if the NDP looks like it's able to deliver more of a progressive agenda, it looks like it's more able to deliver the goods," he said.

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