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john ibbitson

Stephen Harper has handed Jack Layton a cheque for a billion dollars and dared him to cash it. Will he?

The answer hinges on whether the NDP Leader insists on substance or settles for sops.

As a political document, Budget 2011 carefully delivers on Conservative priorities while quarter-answering NDP demands.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty ignored the key NDP call to eliminate the federal portion of the HST on home heating costs, but he did offer $400-million in rebates to make homes more energy efficient.

The NDP wants $700-million to lift low-income seniors out of poverty through the Guaranteed Income Supplement. The Tories are offering $300-million. The NDP believes Ottawa should substantially increase spending on health care. There's a new program to encourage medical school graduates to move to rural areas.

As for enhancing the Canada Pension Plan, the final NDP demand, the Finance Minister could not even rouse himself to promise to consult.

Overall, the estimated $1-billion over two years that can safely be described as NDP-generated initiatives is a fraction, and not a large one, of what Mr. Layton wanted to see.

The budget is otherwise robustly conservative. It sets the politically difficult goal of eliminating the deficit in four years or less by limiting overall spending increases to 2 per cent a year, without cutting transfers either to provinces or to individuals, and with continued corporate tax cuts.

Though once again, the budget defers the truly difficult choices on what to cut till next year, presumably on the assumption that by then the election will have come and gone.

Nonetheless, no social democratic party worthy of its name would have anything to do with such a budget.

But since Mr. Flaherty doesn't even offer a squib to the Liberals or the Bloc Quebecois, it is for Mr. Layton and his caucus to decide whether there's a general election.

Later Tuesday, the three federal opposition parties announced they will all vote against Mr. Flaherty's proposed budget, making it likely that a spring election will be called and that none of the budget's provisions will be enacted.

Of course, it was always going to come down to this. Only Mr. Layton met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in advance of the budget. Only the NDP laid out its conditions for voting yes or at least abstaining from voting no. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had made reversing corporate tax cuts a necessary requirement of Liberal support, and that was always a non-starter.

And the list of Bloc demands — reaching back to compensation for the 1998 ice storm — was cause mostly for mirth. If the budget and the government are to be saved, only the NDP can save it.

Doubtless anticipating that the answer will be no, Mr. Flaherty's budget also doubles as a Conservative election platform. While overall spending is kept under control, incentives for middle-class families are sprinkled like confectionary sugar over an otherwise leaden cake.

There are tax credits for caregivers, for children taking arts programs, for volunteer firefighters, for small businesses who hire new workers, along with the assistance for low-income seniors and to retrofit older, drafty houses. While hardly cradle-to-grave welfare, the measures seek to persuade middle-class taxpayers with family and financial pressures that the Liberals and the NDP are not the only parties that care.

Balanced budgets and low taxes, but help for working families with children and aging parents. "Budget 2011" is really "please-give-us-a-majority-government-in-2011."

But whether that election comes really depends on factors not contained in the budget at all. Mr. Layton's health is uncertain and a number of the NDP MPs are at risk of losing their seats. The party's prospects would likely improve if it held off for a year.

But to support this budget would not only contradict NDP principles, it would require the party to keep the government alive through any upcoming vote of no-confidence over the Conservatives being held in contempt of Parliament. Such a climb down could only be described as craven.

Still, with its help for seniors, home renovators and towns in search of doctors, the budget offers the NDP an out. As fig leaves go, it still leaves the party pretty naked. We'll know after Wednesday's caucus meeting whether it's enough.