Deirdre McMurdy

In coffee shops and hockey rinks and all the other places where Canadians huddle together for warmth, you can almost hear the excited anticipation in the winter air: Parliament returns on January 31.

As all good ringmasters do, the folks in Prime Minister Harper's office got us all wound up in early January with a little Cabinet shuffle. And since then, the buzz has been fuelled by political attack ads airing on television, rumours of a spring election and lots of quibbling about the upcoming federal budget.

Even though there are any number of other issues on the agenda for the new session, there's no question the budget eclipses everything else in the current economic and minority government context.

Since the age of minority government arrived in 2004 — after 25 years of a majority — the budget has become the annual opportunity for Opposition parties to take a really hard run at the ones forming the government. Pretty much every year of Mr Harper's political life has been punctuated with lavish threats to overturn the status quo if certain budget conditions aren't met.

The Tories haven't done much to endear themselves by introducing an approach to budget drafting that could charitably be described as the kitchen sink strategy. They aggregate all kinds of issues — everything from competition law and copyright to renovation tax credits — into one big, honking document.

That means that all sorts of things get passed without a whole lot of debate because they're part of a bigger package. And at a time of extreme voter sensitivity to budget measures, it's not always politically prudent to hold up the passage of the bill.

So far, the contender to beat in the annual pre-budget staring competition is the Bloc Quebecois: Gilles Duceppe is threatening to overturn the government if Quebec doesn't get a $5-billion payment from the federal government. That's $2.2 billion for harmonizing provincial and federal sales taxes in the 1990s (Ontario and BC got help when they did it later, so now he wants a make-good) plus interest of $2.8 billion.

If the money ain't in the budget, he won't support it.

As it stands right now, the Big Bone of Contention — at least politically — seems to be focused on proposed corporate tax cuts. As the government shifts out of stimulus mode, it's hoping that a little lighter fluid in the private sector will spark some job creation.

    This is by no means a new topic of heated discussion in Canada. It was taking place in 1972 when NDP leader David Lewis coined the term "corporate welfare bums" — a phrase that Mr Harper borrowed back in 2004 when he urged Canadian companies to stop accepting handouts and stand on their own. (Almost exactly four years before bailing them out with federal funds at the time of the economic downturn, but we digress.)