Today's poll points to a feel-better budget

Initial reaction to today’s Ekos poll will be that the Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are paying a surprisingly heavy price for suspending Parliament. No doubt that’s a key part of the story.

But the Tory slide began before prorogation. Ekos President Frank Graves reported prolonged “downward pressure” on Tory numbers in the poll he released a week ago, noting then that the Afghan detainee issue hurt the Conservatives in the waning weeks of 2009. Today’s poll, showing the Conservatives and Liberals virtually tied, discovers that trend continuing with remarkable strength.

As is almost always the case, political fortunes appear to be turning, not on isolated smart moves or single missteps, but on combinations of events that reinforce and amplify impressions, good or bad.

Let’s say you’re a voter who was inclined to think the Conservatives maybe behaved a little shabbily in attacking Richard Colvin. It’s a complex story, but the government’s rough handling of the soft-spoken, evidently credible diplomat you saw on the TV news strikes you as heavy-handed.

And then, before you’ve had time to quite lose interest in that whole Colvin thing, you read that the Prime Minister has shut down the House without any good reason—perhaps he’s even trying to dodge that detainee controversy. It’s not hard to imagine that you might sour, at least temporarily, on the governing party.

If this is the sort of linkage that’s sinking Tory numbers, then it suggests Canadians are reacting to something they’ve long known about Harper—that his political persona is largely defined by his opportunistic, hard-hitting streak. In his better moments, these qualities can make him appear strong. At his worst, he comes off as mean and ruthless.

So what should we be watching for in the next couple of months? Since Harper has said he plans to “recalibrate” around economic policy, his aim will have to be to offset his recent rough play around Parliament with budget measures that show him, and his government, in a more sympathetic light.

Indeed, that’s what he signaled last week in New Brunswick. “I think Canadians recognize we’ve responded in a timely and effective manner to job losses across the country, including vastly increasing support for retraining and support for the employment insurance system,” Harper said. “But clearly more has to be done.”

In the context of creating jobs, “more” usually means more government spending. But that’s not what Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says is coming. He has repeatedly said that when the two-year stimulus package launched in last year’s budget runs out, the government will turn to restraining spending, in order to reduce the deficit.

Indeed, the worse the economy performs, the more stringent federal spending restraint will have to be, Flaherty said recently in Winnipeg. The problem is that when economy is weak, and thus not creating jobs, it also fails to generate tax revenues, which worsens the deficit. Flaherty’s deficit-cutting prescription, then: lower economic growth, lower federal spending.

It’s hard to see how the planned March 4 budget can be the deficit-reduction strategy Flaherty promises and, at the same time, the job-creation plan Harper suggests. If polls continue to show the Conservatives looking off-puttingly harsh to Canadian voters, the budget must shift in the direction of trying to soften that image.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.