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Will Flaherty stay the course or stuff his budget with pre-election goodies?

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds a news conference in Ottawa on May 26, 2010.


In just 12 days Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers his budget - a document not only important to Canada's economic future but to its political future as well. There is growing speculation the Harper minority government will be defeated over some aspect of this document, plunging the country into a general election.

But not everyone is convinced of this scenario or that it's wise for the opposition to try to frame an election around the Conservatives' record as fiscal managers. So we asked our pollster panel to weigh in on how they think the budget will play out.

FRANK GRAVES sees the possibility of "drama and surprise" in Mr. Flaherty's budget, both in the government's positioning of it and the opposition's reaction. "This isn't a 'normal' political environment as there is a hair trigger between Parliament and the hustings," the EKOS Research president says.

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Given that, Mr. Graves outlines three different budget scenarios:

1. The government presents a "steady as she goes/stay the course" document that's "low risk but no real upside either."

2. A "surprise" budget: The government inserts a series of goodies into the document to win over more converts to the Tory team. "This approach would be riskier and have the added disadvantage of clashing with the ideological impulses of the government. But those compromises have been endured in the service of political imperatives by this government before and couldn't be ruled out if the endgame is majority or bust," Mr. Graves says.

3. The government borrows a page from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's campaign and stops the federal "gravy train." Mr. Graves believes this is a compelling - though short-sighted - message for voters. That strategy would see draconian cuts outside of defence and justice and could be "very attractive, particularly in some of the Ontario/Toronto seats that lay between the Conservatives and a majority."

As for the opposition, he thinks it would be difficult for it to mount fierce challenges, especially if the Tories adopt the steady-as-she goes approach. Mr. Graves suggests Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe would be wise to "turn to other themes, such as character and democracy."

DARRELL BRICKER agrees. The opposition parties, he says, "are intensely trying to change the channel to ethics, and turning up the volume."

The Ipsos Reid chief executive expects "a pre-election budget. It will be loaded with good news. There will be good news on the economy, good news on the deficit, good news on programs for Canadians, and good news on taxes."

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He adds: "The Tories would love to be defeated on this budget."

But the opposition leaders are not dumb, the pollster notes. And so they will look to other issues - such as ethical controversy swirling around Bev Oda, Jason Kenney and two Conservative senators in the in-and-out election financing scheme.

"Will this election be about preserving the Tory's economic agenda, or punishing them for running what the opposition claims is an unethical government?"

NIK NANOS is on the same page, arguing the Harper government's critics will try to change the story line to ethics instead of economics.

The Nanos Research president says the opposition is now "fixated on the Election Canada charges and trying to shift the focus of Canadians to a counter narrative of the Tories as a threat to democracy."

For the Tories, he says, this budget will be all about "government driven themes of prudence and fiscal responsibility." And like Mr. Graves, he sees the possibility of a "steady-as-she-goes" approach.

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"Think of the coming federal budget as the narrative the Tories are pushing to frame a possible election," Mr. Nanos says. "For the Harper government they are trying to convey to voters - 'you might not love us, or even like us - but you have to recognize the job we've done guiding Canada through the Great Recession.' It's the Buckley's cough syrup of political marketing. Might not taste great but it works. That's at least what the Harper government will want Canadians to think."

DIMITRI PANTAZOPOULOS is skeptical of the view the budget is "a defining moment for this government that will precipitate an election."

The head of Praxicus Public Strategies sees Mr. Flaherty's plan playing out in three different ways: it will be "anti-climatic;" the opposition parties will "claim credit for some portion of the budget (in particular the NDP) and either support it or stay away in sufficient numbers;" and the Liberals will try to defeat the government on a non-budget matter.

The pollster predicts "a straight no-confidence motion. This is the wiser approach anyway." He believes Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals have painted themselves into a corner in their attempt to position themselves as the defenders of the middle-class as they contrast the corporate tax cuts with the $56-billion deficit.

It's a tough place to be, as Mr. Pantazopoulos suggests the deficit will come in much lower than forecast and surprise Canadians. Additionally, the budget won't mention the corporate tax cuts since they are already enacted and the Liberals will look hypocritical criticizing the size of the deficit while "promoting new program spending."

Remember, he says, the Harper government holds all of the cards as it controls every aspect of budget process. "In this political game of chess, the government has the first move advantage. They set the agenda and the opposition react. This puts the opposition at a distinct disadvantage."

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