OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's minority Conservative government came under attack from two opposition parties on Monday over its ethical problems, increasing speculation that the country is heading for an early election.
The Conservatives, who have had five largely trouble-free years in office under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are now stumbling from one mishap to another.
The opposition Liberals and New Democrats regularly accuse Harper of abuse of power and blast the government's spending policies, leading one polling firm to speculate on Monday that Canada was on the brink of a general election.
Although polls show the Conservatives would easily win a fresh election -- likely with another minority -- opposition legislators clearly feel confident they can benefit from missteps by a government that came to power in early 2006 promising to clean up politics.
The Conservatives need the support of at least one opposition party to pass the budget, which will be presented on March 22. If all three opposition parties vote against it, the government will be defeated and an election will be called, possibly for early May.
Last week, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken rebuked the government for refusing to say how much it would spend on prisons. He also condemned a Conservative minister for misleading Parliament.
The main opposition Liberal Party, which has already made it clear it will vote against the budget, said Harper had lost his moral compass.
"This was the guy who came into ... town on a horse called Accountability. Unfortunately, he put the horse down," senior Liberal legislator David McGuinty told reporters on Monday.
Frank Graves of polling firm Ekos said an early election appeared "increasingly unavoidable", writing in a note that "there is a hair trigger between Parliament and the hustings".
On Monday, it emerged the government was planning a major multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to trumpet a two-year stimulus program that ends in two weeks' time.
"It's an abuse of power. It's Stephen Harper abusing his power over tax dollars to spend it promoting himself," said Jack Layton leader of the left-leaning New Democrats -- the party deemed most likely to back the Conservatives' budget.
The New Democrats want increased spending on seniors in return for their support for the budget. Layton, speaking to Ottawa's CFRA radio, held out little hope of a compromise.
"I wish (Harper) was spending time talking with us about how we could get things done in this upcoming budget but there's been no sign of really any interest," he said.
"I don't want to support the Harper government ... but I would rather we had a budget that was addressing some of the basic needs that Canadians are facing."
Shortly after Layton spoke, it emerged that police had been asked to investigate allegations of political interference by a former top aide to one Conservative cabinet minister. Last month, four senior Conservative officials were charged with violating financing rules during the 2006 election campaign.
The accusations of scandal look set to increase later this week when a special Parliamentary committee holds three days of televised hearings on Milliken's contempt rulings.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said he was not looking for an election but quickly added he wanted to provide an alternative to "four years of waste, four years of abuse and four years of bad choices" under the Conservatives.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson