OTTAWA - Two of the most powerful men in the Conservative cabinet have openly contradicted each other on a key campaign promise — a split that speaks to the different ideologies and allegiances living within the Tory caucus.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty started the ball rolling early Wednesday by candidly questioning the wisdom of expanding income splitting for Canadian families.
During the 2011 election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to bring in the measure once the federal books were balanced, using a middle-class family home on Vancouver Island as a backdrop to the major campaign announcement.
Allowing couples with children to split their income would mean parents could pool their income together in order to qualify for a lower tax bracket.
"I would pay down public debt and reduce taxes more, myself, but I am only one person," Flaherty said in a post-budget interview before the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.
Junior Minister Maxime Bernier, Finance committee chairman James Rajotte and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt also expressed reservations about the policy later in the day.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney, however, insisted that the campaign promise would be kept, a sentiment echoed by Treasury Board President Tony Clement.
"We made a platform commitment to introduce income splitting when we get to a balanced budget; we'll get to a balanced budget next year, that's very clear," Kenney said.
There was plenty of tea-leaf reading by the time question period rolled around, when the prime minister stood to answer nearly every query on the federal budget, tabled only a day earlier. Flaherty sat mutely by his side for all but two questions.
For Canadians wondering whether income splitting will be a reality or not, Harper did little to clear things up when asked about the confusion during question period.
"This government, in the last election, made a commitment that when we balance the budget ... one of the highest priorities of this government will be tax reduction for Canadian families," he said.
"I know that their plans would be tax hikes on Canadian families, but we believe in this party we should cut taxes for Canadian families."
So who spoke out of turn? Flaherty or Kenney?
One senior Conservative suggested Harper actually has his own reservations about income splitting. Some high-profile analysts have said that it would benefit a small proportion of mostly wealthy families, and not single parents or average working couples.
The Tory suggested social conservatives within the party, such as Kenney and his large support base within caucus, would be more in favour of such a plan because it appeals to traditional families where one parent does not work.
Other Conservatives speculated that Flaherty is feeling free to speak his mind because he has one foot out the door.
When he introduced the budget Wednesday, his wife and three sons were in the public gallery. Later in the day, he gave a vague answer when asked whether he would stick around to deliver another budget.
Flaherty also seemed to drift off script Wednesday on the issue of job training programs and the provinces.
Kenney has been trying to strike agreements with the various governments on a shared grant system for training workers, stressing his desire for constructive discussions.
Flaherty, on the other hand, scoffed at provincial complaints as he emphasized that Ottawa could do whatever it wanted with its job training money.
There have been tensions between Flaherty and Kenney in recent months over embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Flaherty is a friend of Ford's, and reacted angrily when Kenney publicly called on Ford to step down.