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Jeffrey Simpson

The Conservatives do protest too much, wethinks Add to ...

It's absolutely predictable that any government wanting an election will insist the contrary. That's why no one should take seriously declarations by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he doesn't want an election and that, if one should unfortunately arrive, it would be entirely due to the opposition parties.

Technically, of course, he's correct. If the three opposition parties vote down the government on the coming budget, there'll be an election. A government seriously wishing to forestall that possibility would be negotiating with one or two of the other parties to find common ground, as happens in other countries with proportional representation systems where minority governments are the norm.

In Canada, however, our parties still act as if majority governments are the norm. They haven't developed the instincts of operating in minority situations, so they make demands on each other that can't be met, posture endlessly and play brinkmanship electoral games.

Two of the opposition parties - the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois - definitely want an election.

The Liberals (or at least those around the leader) seem to have convinced themselves that only an election will cause Canadians to pay attention to politics. The Liberals reason (hope? pray?) that the more Canadians pay attention to politics, the less they'll like the Harper government - although, it could also be that the more they pay attention, the less they'll like the Liberals and their leader, Michael Ignatieff.

The Bloc always wants an election, since it finances itself mostly from Canadian taxpayers, always has a list of grievances for Quebec and has perfected the technique of claiming credit for everything that benefits Quebec while blaming others for everything that doesn't.

As for the New Democrats, it would appear from their list of budget demands that they're at least resigned to one, if not chomping at the bit for a vote.

The Conservatives, for their part, have been doing everything possible to soften up Canadians for an election, including insisting that they don't want one.

Those ubiquitous (and disgusting) Conservative attack ads on TV are all about gaining partisan advantage before the writ is dropped. The Conservatives have oodles of money. Their chief fundraiser, Senator Irving Gerstein, has just sent out another of his hilariously alarming letters asking for more cash, warning about threats almost to life itself from the other parties if they don't pony up. Once a campaign formally begins, spending limits kick in; before the campaign, parties can spend whatever, which is what the Conservatives are doing with these attack ads.

Not a day passes without another government announcement or photo op, all part of a pre-election script. Everything the government now does involves tactics targeted at slices of the electorate it needs to form a majority - although this week's Nanos Research poll showed resistance to giving the Conservatives a majority to be at its highest point since 2007.

The budget is likely to feature more of those itsy-bitsy targeted tax breaks this government adores and most economists hate. The government has already signalled it has no intention to make hard decisions on spending, any one of which might cause a political problem. Controversial decisions (such as the proposed merger of the Toronto and London stock exchanges) will be delayed until after the election.

Falsely, the Conservatives are insisting that the Liberals want to "raise" taxes, whereas, in fact, the Liberals propose to forgo coming corporate income tax decreases, a quite different approach from raising taxes. Falsely, too, the Conservatives are insisting that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc hunger to form a post-election "coalition" of the kind that nearly came together before the Conservatives prorogued Parliament several years ago.

Another poll released this week showed that Canadians are right up there with the Swedes and Saudis as the world's leading back-patters on how well their countries have done. That national self-congratulation is exactly what the Conservatives hope will put Canadians in a grateful mood come voting day.

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