Over his five years of minority rule, Stephen Harper craftily stayed in power by leaning on each of the three federal opposition parties at various times.
For the first two years, the Prime Minister won votes from the Bloc Québécois. Thanks to the Liberals, his three previous budgets passed. The NDP also stepped in to save the government on a budget bill in 2009 in exchange for new spending on employment insurance.
This time it didn't work.
Unlike previous Canadian minority Parliaments where two parties - usually the Liberals and NDP -strike arrangements to govern for a set period, the Conservative minority has no natural allies. Mr. Harper's governments therefore don't enjoy the stability achieved by the minority Tories in Britain, who formed a formal coalition government last year with the Liberal Democrats.
As a result, every Harper budget is a cliffhanger. None of the three parties want to be the ones accused of "propping up" the very government they are supposed to attack each day in the House of Commons.
The Liberals and Bloc jumped out early and hard with budget demands that made clear the Tories should not count on them this time.
New Democrats privately said that backing the Tories is a very hard sell to their supporters, but put forward a list to the government they felt both the NDP and the Conservatives could support. The NDP wish list made no mention of corporate tax cuts - long opposed by the party - but stressed its remaining five demands would have to be met.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty responded with a budget that met the NDP halfway and could serve as a campaign platform if his government were defeated.
Lost in the focus on the budget's overlap with several NDP priorities is the fact that it mimicked a central plank of the Liberal Party's platform.
The Conservatives are now offering a new credit for Canadians caring for sick relatives - albeit with a less generous incentive than the Liberals have proposed. With Ottawa in deficit, none of the parties can promise many big new spending items. Therefore, the Conservatives can use the budget pledge as a way of countering what the Liberals intend to use as a key policy difference in the campaign.
As this budget goes down in the parliamentary history books, the unanswered question is whether Mr. Harper - whose party is leading in the polls and who flooded the airwaves with partisan ads in recent weeks - wanted to be defeated.
Keith Beardsley, Mr. Harper's former deputy chief of staff, says he believes the Prime Minister made the NDP a sincere offer.
"At least when I was there, he was always the one person who didn't [want an election]even if his senior advisers were encouraging him to," he said. "He never wanted one."
Others don't buy it, including Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan. "I believe the budget was not designed to get passed."
- With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto
Incentives designed to appeal to wide range of voters
Canadians who care for sick or disabled loved ones could see their taxes reduced by as much as $300 annually under a new Conservative proposal that would cost Ottawa $200-million over the first two years.
The Liberal Party, however, has already laid out a more ambitious plan, which would include $250-million a year to expand employment insurance and allow family caregivers to claim benefits for six months. The Liberals would also budget $750-million a year to provide tax-free monthly payments to lower- and middle-income family caregivers who don't qualify for EI.
The Conservative Party deliberately ignored Bloc Québécois demands for the province, including funding for a new hockey amphitheatre in Quebec City and a $2.2-billion sales-tax harmonization deal with the Quebec government.
The Conservatives are banking on other spending in the province, including $228-million on federal bridges in Montreal and $45-million over five years to the National Optics Institute in Quebec City.
The issues of seniors, the aging population and health care will play big parts in the election campaign. It was also a key part in the failure of Tuesday's budget to win the opposition's support. Both the NDP and Bloc Québécois called for the budget to bring in major increases to the Guaranteed Income Supplement, with the NDP calling for a $700-million boost.
The Conservative budget acted, but only to the tune of about $300-million. While Canadians increasingly tune out federal politics, many seniors remain engaged and will turn out to vote.
Eliminating the Deficit
The Conservative Party is promising to return to surplus in 2015-2016, adding that a new review of direct program spending could lead to an accelerated timetable on the elimination of the deficit. There is no detail in Budget 2011 on the coming wave of cuts, however, fuelling opposition concerns that the Harper government is being secretive.
In a campaign, the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois will be able to raise fears over potential Conservative attacks against social programs or areas that have already been in the government's sights, such as the arts or women's issues.
Doctors for the north
The Conservatives are planning to tackle the shortage of medical help in the North by forgiving $40,000 in Canada Student Loans for new family physicians and $20,000 for nurses who work in remote communities. At a projected cost of only $9-million a year, the measure falls short of the opposition's demands for immediate relief for all Canadians. During the pre-budget buildup, NDP Leader Jack Layton called for help for five million Canadians without family physicians.
- Daniel Leblanc, Bill Curry and Jeremy Torobin
The budget sweeteners
- A tax credit worth $300 a year for caregivers who help infirm relatives. At an annual cost of $120-million, the Conservative proposal falls short of a $1-billion Liberal family-care proposal.
- $150-million for building an all-season road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, reinforcing the Conservative Party's commitment to the North.
- Up to $450 in tax credits to volunteer firefighters. At only $15-million, the measure faces no immediate opposition.
- $60-million to the forestry industry for innovation projects and the development of foreign markets. It is a fraction of Bloc Québécois demand for more than $1-billion in help for the province's hard-hit industry.
- Forgiving $40,000 in Canada Student Loans for new family physicians and $20,000 for nurses who work in remote communities, which the NDP argues will do nothing to alleviate shortfalls.
- $4-million over three years for the production of medical isotopes at the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, which is located in an NDP riding that the Tories are targeting.
- $5-million in funding for both the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup and the Calgary Stampede, which enjoy pan-Canadian visibility and support.
- A tax credit for up to $500 a year in arts classes and cultural activities for children, which mirrors an existing tax credit for sports activities.
- $17-million to contain the spread of plum pox, a lethal plant disease, among fruit producers in the Niagara region of Ontario. The area will be heavily contested by the three national parties.
- $300-million a year to top up Guaranteed Income Supplement benefits by $600 for single seniors, and by $840 for couples. At a total cost of $300-million, it does not meet the NDP's request for a $700-million boost to the GIS.