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He who tells the best story this fall will govern Canada

Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff have competing stories they want to tell. And they will use Monday's return of Parliament - probably the last full sitting before a federal election - to tell them. Whoever weaves the better tale will govern Canada in the coming years.

Most federal elections hinge on the simple question: Who do you trust to mind the store? The next election, however, will also be fought over an issue: Should the federal government cut spending to fight the deficit, or should it protect programs and let debt continue to pile up?

Government officials say that the Conservatives will pound the economy every day in the House of Commons; virtually every announcement and piece of legislation - from ratifying free trade with Panama, to implementing long-overdue changes to the Copyright Act - will be presented as part of the Tories' jobs program, culminating in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's economic update later in the fall.

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About a quarter of the government $47-billion stimulus program is still working its way through the economy, so expect announcements (and reannouncements) on that side as well.

But Mr. Harper is adamant that there be no further stimulus, despite increasing calls by economists - and U.S. President Barack Obama - for additional spending in the face of a faltering recovery. The Prime Minister is basing that decision on the experience of the 1970s and 80s, when repeated rounds of government stimulus achieved less and less, because workers and consumers realized the activity it generated was temporary and artificial, but the debt it left behind was permanent.

Nonetheless, the Liberals and NDP fear that cutting back on government spending and obsessing over balanced books this soon could undermine the recovery. Mr. Ignatieff has called for a freeze to planned cuts to corporate income tax, while promoting targeted investments in child care, post-secondary education and other social programs.

The Liberal Leader spent the summer on a nationwide bus tour that featured more than 1,600 stops.

"People's priorities are pretty consistent right now across the country," Liberal House Leader David McGuinty said. "They deal with health care, they deal with educational opportunities, they're concerned with their pensions ... there are a series of repeating needs and desires by the population that he has heard over and over again throughout his tour."

And the Liberals will ask why the Conservatives have no extra money to help out students pay their tuition, but billions for fighter jets and prisons. The NDP will echo and amplify the Liberal line.

This argument will carry on past the fall session and through the winter. It will likely be the grounds for the opposition defeating the Conservative budget, and become the centrepiece of the election campaign. The only politically possible escape from a defeat over the budget would be an economic recovery so strong that the Conservatives would be able to cut the deficit in half without having to cut spending. But at this point the recovery appears too weak for that.

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The stakes are as high as it is possible for stakes to get. If the Conservatives lose, Mr. Harper, who is only 51 but who faces his fourth federal election, will almost certainly quit politics. If the Liberals lose, Mr. Ignatieff, 63, is likely to do the same. NDP Leader Jack Layton, 60, is successfully battling cancer and tells everyone he's ready to campaign, but he may decide as well that this should be his last one.

We may be on the brink of a generational shift in federal politics. But not, at least, until the old guard has at it one more time.

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