Coalition, HST advantages for Harper

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Sun Media, Friday, April 8, 2011

In the run-up to the leaders' debates next week there have been two significant developments, neither having anything to do with the leaders' tours and the polls, both essentially meaningless in the early phase of the campaign.

The first is that all three opposition leaders have said their parties will vote against the budget if it is re-introduced in its present form in a minority Parliament.

If the government fell on this, then what?

One of only two outcomes: Either an opposition coalition to form a government, or a writ for a new election. The country does not want either one to happen. And this plays straight into Stephen Harper's coalition narrative.

The second item is Harper's commitment that he will conclude a $2.2-billion deal with Quebec by mid-September to harmonize the federal and provincial sales tax, as Ottawa has already done with Ontario and British Columbia.

As Harper was at pains to point out Tuesday, he's putting the money into his platform as a costed campaign commitment, unlike Michael Ignatieff, who supports a GST deal with Quebec but neglected to include it in the Liberal program he put out Sunday.

It's no mystery: The cost of a formal HST commitment would have taken the cost of the Liberal platform over $10 billion, a serious threshold for the Tory taunt that Iggy is a tax-and- spend Liberal.

Just like that, Ignatieff got wedged.

Meanwhile, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe had already isolated himself on his best issue, an HST deal, the main arrow in his quiver of demands for Quebec.

In St.-Jean-Port-Joli on Monday, Duceppe said he wouldn't support Jim Flaherty's budget if the government brought it back, even if it had the $2.2 billion of HST money in it.

"I said in the beginning that if the ($2.2 billion) wasn't there, then we would never accept it. If it was, then we would look at it. We have, and we won't be voting in favour."

It's highly unusual for the usually sure-footed Duceppe to make such a flippant and foolish statement. He has handed Harper a sword for the debate.

He is also inviting Harper to throw his own campaign slogan, "Let's talk Quebec" back in his face.

Harper can now say that while Duceppe and the Bloc talk about Quebec, he and the Conservatives are delivering the goods for Quebec. That's not a good place for Duceppe to be, but it's very good debate positioning for Harper with voters asking what's in this election for Quebec.

The HST move also has the virtue of being bulletproof in the rest of the country. Since Harper has already made deals with Ontario and B.C., he can hardly be accused of giving Quebec special treatment, which would have stirred a backlash in English-speaking Canada.

Meanwhile, Iggy and Jack Layton have tumbled into the coalition trap in a minority House.

"I can't see voting for the same thing we voted against weeks ago," Layton said Wednesday.

Actually, it never even came to a vote, as the government fell on a confidence motion two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Ignatieff was already on record as saying he would not be able to support a budget if it was the same one all three opposition parties opposed.

What he should have said was he was running to win, and introduce his own budget.

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