OTTAWA (Reuters) - If the Conservative government wants to hang on to power when it presents its budget on March 22 it will need the support of a small opposition party with which it shares almost no common ground.
The Conservatives do not have enough seats in the House of Commons to pass the budget by themselves and need the backing of one of the three opposition parties. If all three vote against the budget, the government will fall and Canadians will head for an election in early May.
This leaves the government’s fate in the hands of the New Democrats, the only party that has not already said it will reject the budget.
Leader Jack Layton says Canadians want Parliament to work and is pressing the government to commit to a series of measures to help seniors, cut home heating costs and hire more doctors.
Layton, whose party favors more social programs and higher corporate taxes, often attacks the tax-cutting tough-on-crime Conservatives and is an odd political partner for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
But two crucial factors are at play: Layton’s health, and whether the New Democrats can shrug off polls showing the party would lose seats in an election.
The energetic 60-year-old is under treatment for prostate cancer and recently suffered a hairline fracture of the hip, which means he is walking on crutches. Aides insist this would not overly hinder his traditionally hard-driving style of campaigning, which often involves a string of 16-hour days.
“Mr. Layton is doing well ... He is ready to campaign whenever the election may come,” said spokesman Karl Belanger.
If the government gives Layton enough of what he wants, he will back the Conservatives while telling supporters that only his party is able to get things done in Ottawa.
Belanger said Harper and Flaherty “can decide to help Canadian families by including some of the practical and affordable proposals the NDP has put forward. We hope that these measures will be included in the budget, but so far, we haven’t been given any guarantees.”
Flaherty said on Tuesday he was still talking to some opposition legislators and had not finalized his budget plans.
“There are lots of things we can do in the budget ... there are a group of older people in Canada who are not entitled to (state pension) benefits who could use some support from government,” he told reporters.
If the government makes enough concessions this could help Layton gain popularity at the expense of the Liberals, a traditionally big tent centrist party that has been inching left.
In 2005, the New Democrats kept the then minority Liberal government in power in return for pledges to boost spending on social programs. Both parties are now fighting for the support of the same segment of the electorate, a factor which helps the Conservatives stay in power.
If Layton decides to bring down the Conservatives, polls indicate the NDP would lose some of the near-record 37 seats it won in the 2008 election. It now holds 36 seats.
This would pain Layton, who took over as leader in 2003 when the party only about a dozen seats and was regarded as politically irrelevant. The House of Commons has 308 seats.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway