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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty laughs during a Dec. 21, 2010, interview. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty laughs during a Dec. 21, 2010, interview. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Tories soften tone with NDP ahead of 2011 budget Add to ...

New budget measures to help low-income seniors and the unemployed are shaping up as potential "common ground" between Conservatives and New Democrats as the Harper government looks for the votes it needs to survive the next budget.

Both the Conservatives and NDP are indicating their positions may overlap in several areas, but reaching a compromise over planned corporate tax cuts will be the main hurdle in solidifying an unusual arrangement between Canada's political right and left.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government prepares its sixth minority budget, it is increasingly directing kind words to a party it has previously attacked as irresponsible "socialists."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's recent decision to heighten election talk and all but rule out his party's support for the next budget leaves the government looking for alternatives. Mr. Harper vilified the Bloc Québécois as "separatists" in his successful campaign to torpedo the 2008 move by the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition government with Bloc support, leaving the NDP has his only remaining dance partner.

NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair said he agrees with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's recent assessment that the two of them found some common ground during a private meeting on the budget. He said those areas included a need to help low-income seniors - perhaps by enhancing the Guaranteed Income Supplement - and possibly renewing incentives for energy-friendly home renovations. Mr. Mulcair said polling shows no party stands to gain now from an election.

"There's not a heck of a lot that would change," he said in an interview, predicting a price will be paid by any party that is seen as responsible for triggering an unnecessary election. Yet the NDP's hints of support come with a major caveat that would be a hard swallow for a government that prides itself on lowering corporate taxes: Mr. Mulcair said the NDP wants future corporate cuts to be more targeted to ensure companies are investing in jobs and productivity.

"If the budget includes the same type of blind, across-the-board corporate tax cut that the Conservatives have been doing in the past, it is highly unlikely that the NDP caucus would ever be able to support such a budget," said Mr. Mulcair.

In a recent year-end interview with the Reuters news agency, Mr. Flaherty said his meeting with Mr. Mulcair left him with the sense that there was some "common ground" between the two parties. The minister listed skills training, retraining of workers, the forestry sector and older workers as examples of areas where the two parties have worked together in the past.

The Prime Minister's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, also singled out NDP Leader Jack Layton's efforts for praise in an e-mail this week to reporters announcing the government would invite Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Canada.

Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker agreed with Mr. Mulcair's assessment that no party stands to gain from an election. He said history has shown the NDP and Conservatives can work together without taking a political hit.

"It's really not to anybody's political advantage to force an election right now," he said. "The likelihood that the NDP will use this as an opportunity to extract something from the Tories … is fairly high."

Either directly or indirectly by keeping MPs away, the opposition Liberals have ensured the Conservatives survived the last three federal budgets. The Conservatives survived the 2006 and 2007 budget votes thanks solely to the Bloc.

In the fall of 2009 - after Mr. Ignatieff declared: "Mr. Harper, your time is up" - Mr. Layton, who had boasted of voting against the Tories in 79 consecutive confidence votes, changed course. The NDP abstained from Mr. Ignatieff's motion that October to defeat the government, citing the need to pass government legislation extending Employment Insurance benefits. The NDP also cited EI improvements at the time as the reason for voting for a bill tied to the 2009 budget that it had earlier opposed.

Mr. Layton made a similar move in 2005, when he came to the rescue of the embattled Paul Martin government, supporting a Liberal budget in exchange for cancelling corporate tax cuts to pay for social housing and other NDP priorities.

Staying alive: Previous parliamentary alliances

The minority Conservatives have relied on all three opposition parties at one point or another to pass five budgets.

2006 budget: Passes with the support of the Bloc Québécois.

2007 budget: Passes with Bloc support.

2008 budget: Passes because most Liberal MPs abstain.

2009 budget: Passes in February with Liberal support. Then a second budget bill in the fall of 2009 is opposed by the Liberals, but supported by the Bloc and the NDP.

2010 budget: Passes because of abstentions by Liberal MPs.

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