“He’s starting to sound like a New Democrat,” Jack Layton said yesterday, speaking of Stephen Harper.

The NDP leader, alluding to plans in the Conservative budget to invest in social housing, was describing how the government would do anything to survive. Anything.

Yesterday was the Throne Speech highlighting a new tone of bi-partisanship. Today will be the neck-saving budget. We can say neck-saving because more than half the budget has already been deliberately leaked as part of Harper’s effort to strategically manipulate the news agenda.

The multi-billion dollar fiscal stimulus combined with tax cuts will likely be enough to satisfy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who doesn’t want an election now and who will argue that his party forced the government’s hand. The bottom line is that a prime minister chastened by his near calamity last fall will live to see another day.

His sense of desperation has seen him enter into a contradiction of staggering dimension, one of the biggest flip-flops Ottawa has ever seen. Only two months ago the government was assuring one and all that, in the words of finance minister James Flaherty, “The days of chronic deficits are behind us.”

This was after Harper promised in the election campaign that there would be no deficit. Then last week, the government announced there would be five years of deficits. Not just any deficits. But huge deficits — $64 billion over the next two years.

The amazing about-face constituted the toughest challenge for the PM to surmount. But his adroit use of pre-budget leaks has done the deed.

The folks in the prime minister’s office know that the media only hangs on to a story until the next good one comes along. So after leaking the $64 billion story, they followed it with other pre-budget news. The story of the stunning deficit reversal was a one-day wonder.

It’s not a question of whether big deficits in this teetering economic climate are necessary. They may well be.

But what it does highlight is once again the question of credibility. Again it is clear with this government that it is all about political manipulation, of taking advantage of the gullible, of thinking that the people will forget what was stated categorically before and believe the Harper team now.

“It’s all about ‘double-speak,’” Ignatieff said. “The stubborn reality is a problem of trust.”

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