OTTAWA - A quiet summer has given Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives some breathing room as they head Monday into what could be an acrimonious fall sitting of Parliament.
A new poll gives the governing party a seven-point lead over the Opposition New Democrats — a cushion they may need if a second omnibus budget implementation bill sparks the same public backlash and all-out parliamentary warfare its predecessor did last spring.
The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey, which was conducted Aug. 30-Sept. 10, put Conservative support at 34 per cent of respondents, the NDP at 27, the Liberals at 24 and the Greens at seven.
The telephone poll of 2,007 Canadians is considered accurate within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times in 20.
The results suggest Canadians may be slowly returning to "more traditional patterns of voting behaviour," said Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg.
Until now, New Democrats had been running neck and neck with — or even slightly ahead of — the ruling party, eating into core Conservative support among older, male and rural voters and core Liberal support among female and urban voters.
The latest poll suggests those voters are migrating back to their traditional choices, said Gregg, causing NDP support to sag and producing modest gains for the Conservatives and Liberals.
A relatively sleepy summer with little federal political controversy has likely helped settle voters back into a somewhat more traditional pattern. But Monday's resumption of Parliament could shake things up again.
"As we know, the House has become a combat zone and, absent that, things do settle down; there aren't those events that drive people's change in viewpoint as much," Gregg said.
"I think that conventional wisdom is right, that Parliament and Parliament sitting is the enemy of the incumbent."
Just how much of an enemy Parliament proves to be to Harper's Conservatives will revolve primarily around the second budget implementation bill, which government House leader Peter Van Loan describes as the "cornerstone legislation" of a fall sitting focused on job creation and economic growth.
The first omnibus budget bill last spring — a 400-plus page behemoth that amended some 70 different pieces of legislation — sparked a furor. It was a massive grab-bag of measures, many that had little to do with the 2012 budget, including a complete rewrite of environmental protection legislation, an overhaul of employment insurance, changes to employment equity law and new rules for political advocacy by charities.
Opposition parties joined forces to rally public opinion against what they called a "Trojan horse" bill, forcing a 22-hour voting marathon on hostile amendments that stalled Parliament for almost two full days.
The second bill is not likely to be as contentious, containing housekeeping measures and following through on tax measures announced in the budget, such as renewing the hiring credit for small business and improvements to registered disability savings plans.
It is also likely to include reforms to the gold-plated pension plan enjoyed by members of Parliament and the more-generous-than-average plan for federal public servants, requiring them to pay 50 per cent of their pension contributions.
Still, Van Loan isn't overly optimistic that opposition parties will give the second bill an easier ride than the first.
"We saw a lot of political games at the end (of the spring sitting) and, frankly, the early signals we're seeing from the Opposition suggest that they want to continue to play games," he said in an interview.
"Our biggest challenge for the fall is simply to try and keep the House of Commons functioning in a productive fashion in the face of an Opposition that's chosen again to play more political games."
Both the NDP and Liberals are taking a wait-and-see approach. But they are prepared to go to the wall again if they deem the second bill, like the first, is larded with non-budgetary measures the government is trying to sneak through with little public notice or parliamentary scrutiny.
How New Democrats respond to the bill "depends what's in it," said Nathan Cullen, the NDP's House leader.
"It's the opening of the conversation. If the government wants to take a belligerent, bully approach, then it's going to set the tone for what's to come."
Ralph Goodale, the deputy Liberal leader, echoed that sentiment, adding that the government's handling of the spring omnibus budget bill was symptomatic of its general contempt for parliamentary democracy.
"If it's the same kind of attitude and the same style that we saw in the spring, then there's very likely to be a lot of acrimony about that," Goodale said.
"Not only did members of Parliament not like it, but Canadians generally didn't like that approach to just lumping everything together, cutting off debate, ramming it through and telling people basically to go to hell."
A host of other issues and potential controversies could also quickly sap the Conservative lead in the polls: any hitch in the fragile economic recovery, further revelations about the so-called robocall scandal, the results of the federal ethics watchdog's investigation into a possible conflict of interest involving Harper's chief of staff, or another foreign takeover bid.
The election of a minority separatist government in Quebec could also put national unity concerns, dormant for more than a decade, back in the spotlight.
According to the Harris-Decima poll, the NDP were leading in Quebec with 31 per cent support, compared with 25 per cent for the Bloc Quebecois, 24 for the Liberals, 15 for the Tories and four for the Greens.
The Conservatives had a 10-point lead in Ontario, with 39 per cent to the Liberals' 29, the NDP's 23 and the Greens' six.
The NDP and Conservatives were tied at 33 per cent in British Columbia, with the Liberals at 19 and the Greens at 13.
The Conservatives held a commanding lead in Alberta and Manitoba/Saskatchewan. But they trailed with only 25 per cent in Atlantic Canada, where the NDP and Liberals were statistically tied at 34 and 32 per cent, respectively.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misidentified Goodale as Liberal House leader
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