A quick straw poll of political insiders reveals that every federal party is quietly preparing for another election. Within parliamentary circles the notion that Canadians will head back to the polls for a fourth time in five years before the end of 2009 is widely treated as a foregone conclusion.
Significantly, the feeling that the 40th Parliament could be history before it has had a real chance to make history runs just as rampant within the government as it does within the ranks of the opposition parties.
Yet the odds that Stephen Harper's Conservatives will produce a budget later this month that the Liberals will not be able to support have also been going down with every passing day.
The government can't afford to earn a second consecutive failing grade on the budget front. Lost in the shuffle of the year-end parliamentary crisis is the fact that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's November fiscal update was panned by the bulk of the economic community.
The disconnect between the severity of the ongoing economic storm and the levity of the Conservative fiscal message went a long way to embolden the opposition parties into seeking to replace the government with a coalition of their own.
A governing party that risks going to the electorate with its flank open to accusations of dereliction on the economic front would have to be suicidal these days.
In the same spirit, the Liberals would have every reason to find grounds to support a constructive budget, especially one endorsed by a blue-ribbon advisory panel that includes some of their own.
Ironically, the prospect of a popular Conservative budget only acts as an accelerant on the election flames.
That's because the opposition suspects the Conservatives are preparing for war even as they overtly seek peace, by crafting a budget designed to become the stepping stone to a spring campaign. Having consolidated their advantage in public opinion with a well-received budget, they would be free to engineer their defeat on an issue of their own choosing later in the session.
The parliamentary dysfunction that the government has recreated in the early days of its second mandate would go a long way toward that particular objective. Although they have not said so in so many words, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP have essentially reverted to their pre-election mantra that under virtually no circumstance will they prop up Harper's minority government.
If there is a community of interest between the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc at this point, it is in bringing the Liberals to an election battle before the party has had time to regroup under a new leader.
Gilles Duceppe, in particular, has no cause to give Michael Ignatieff time to find his footing. Many Quebecers readily supported the notion of an opposition coalition last month – not for the influential support role it afforded the Bloc, but because it would have paved the way to the replacement of a Conservative government they have grown to dislike by a more progressive one.
There is mounting anecdotal evidence that Ignatieff has a potential audience in Quebec, as long as he can rebuild a party infrastructure in time for the next campaign.
Of all the volatile elements in the federal mix, the Conservative lead in the polls has become the main reason why a 2009 federal election seems preordained. Should that lead evaporate, Canadians could yet be spared a return to the polls this year.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.