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budget watch

Speaker Peter Milliken addresses members of Parliament during Question Period in the House Commons on Feb. 14, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Pulling the trigger is not as easy as it sounds.

Moving on from the endless and unresolved speculation over "if" the opposition will defeat the government, Parliament Hill is now abuzz over "how."

A prime minister can go to the Governor-General at any time. But an opposition in a minority Parliament looking for an election must be united on both the timing and the method in order to bring down a sitting government.

That's why this hardly ever happens.

The most obvious hurdle to the Conservative government's survival is the string of confidence votes that follow the tabling of the 2011 budget on March 22. But Liberals are preparing for another option, and it could all happen very quickly.

Any day, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken will issue rulings in response to two separate claims by Liberal MPs that the Conservatives are acting in contempt of Parliament. One, from Liberal MP John McKay, relates to accusations International Co-operation minister Bev Oda misled Parliament and had a document doctored. The other, from Liberal MP Scott Brison, asks the Speaker to find the government in contempt for refusing to fully disclose the cost of government crime bills.

If either ruling sides with the Liberals, either MP could immediately move a motion of non-confidence in the government. While it is possible this could happen this week, it is more likely to come to a head after next week's one-week Commons recess.

The possible Liberal tactic is an alternative to defeating the budget and challenging the Tories on one of their strongest files - the economy.

Canadians are willing to give the Conservatives good marks for economic management, said Harris-Decima pollster Bruce Anderson, meaning the opposition would be wise to avoid framing an election around what is or is not in the budget.

"For the Liberals, the economy is fast becoming more headwind than tailwind," the pollster said. "At the same time, the Conservatives are coughing the ball up on a lot of plays right now, mistakes that are the kind that have the potential to get under the skin of voters."

Mr. Anderson said these mistakes include the government's handling of the Oda file, the claims that charges against four party officials amount to an administrative disagreement with Elections Canada and stories about the promotion and branding of the government using public money.

Research by the Library of Parliament shows just how unusual these times are. Only five times in Canada's 144 years has a government been defeated by a vote in the House of Commons. This is largely because minority Parliaments are rare. Of those defeats, two - in 1974 and 1979 - were on an amendment to the budget. Only one - in 1926 - was on a motion about cabinet ministers breaching the privileges of Parliamentarians.

Any motion to defeat the Conservatives can only succeed if all three opposition parties are on board. On Monday, all three remained coy.

Mr. Brison, the Liberal finance critic, said he would not comment on "hyperactive" speculation taking place on the Hill.

"The rumour mill is on overdrive on this," he said. "We're waiting for the Speaker's ruling. We'll determine then what steps are appropriate after that."

NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair said the Liberals are "all bluster" when it comes to wanting an election.

"We won't back down," he said. "But I'm not going to tell you in advance what I'm going to say about something that I haven't seen yet. That's just not the way it works."