LIB­ER­ALS ROLL DICE WITH BUD­GET

Ottawa Citizen - - NP - JOHN IVISON

The front cover of this year’s bud­get fea­tures a mother and daugh­ter walk­ing down what looks sus­pi­ciously like a yel­low brick road.

Per­haps the fi­nance min­is­ter, in some sub­con­scious mo­ment of sin­cer­ity, was ac­knowl­edg­ing the best hope of slay­ing the deficit is to fol­low the path to Emer­ald City and seek out the Wizard of Oz.

That seems a more re­al­is­tic prospect than the mea­sures taken in Bud­get ’ 16 spark­ing the growth nec­es­sary to bring the econ­omy back into sur­plus.

Pol­i­tics in this coun­try has just be­come real, af­ter four months of rhetoric and pos­tur­ing.

Bill Morneau has tabled the big­gest so­cial spend­ing bud­get since the in­tro­duc­tion of the Canada Pen­sion Plan in the 1960s.

The tragic death of Con­ser­va­tive MP Jim Hil­lyer saw Wed­nes­day’s ques­tion pe­riod can­celled, post­pon­ing the op­por­tu­nity for the op­po­si­tion to probe the govern­ment over its bud­get.

There will be just one ques­tion pe­riod be­fore the House of Com­mons ad­journs for Easter.

But if I were Rona Am­brose, I would ask the fi­nance min­is­ter by how much he in­tends to ramp up his rev­enues to pay for the largesse he has just dis­trib­uted around the coun­try.

The Lib­er­als have long been ac­cused of be­ing guilty of tax­ing, then spend­ing. That ap­pel­la­tion will have to be re­vised — they look set to be­come the party of spend­ing, then tax­ing.

I would also ask the govern­ment for de­tails about the $2-bil­lion “low car­bon econ­omy fund,” squir­relled away deep in the bud­get doc­u­ments, with lit­tle to no ex­pla­na­tion as to its pur­pose. It ap­pears to be a slush fund de­signed to in­duce the provinces to ac­cept a fed­er­ally man­dated floor price on car­bon. But the doc­u­ments do not elab­o­rate.

“Never has so lit­tle been said about so much money,” said one per­son fa­mil­iar with the de­vel­op­ment of the bud­get.

For all the Lib­er­als’ ap­par­ent elec­toral in­vin­ci­bil­ity, we have seen in the last year how quickly sen­ti­ment can change.

The party’s elec­tion plat­form promised “mod­est” deficits, in stark con­trast to the “vi­cious cy­cle of chronic deficits” that then-Lib­eral fi­nance min­is­ter Paul Martin used to warn would con­demn the coun­try to eco­nomic lethargy.

Yet we are now en­ter­ing a pe­riod of pro­tracted bud­getary short­falls that look un­re­lent­ing.

Pub­lic opin­ion polling sug­gests there is ex­treme ner­vous­ness about deficits higher than the $10 bil­lion promised in the Lib­eral plat­form — an Ip­sos Reid sur­vey from this week said only 15 per cent of re­spon­dents sup­port a $30-bil­lion deficit.

That dis­quiet may be muted once the new child ben­e­fit cheques land, in the way that pigs are more oblig­ing in the pres­ence of the man with the slop bucket.

Else­where, the govern­ment risks look­ing com­pla­cent in the wake of the Brus­sels ter­ror at­tack, af­ter pour­ing bil­lions into pet so­cial causes and very lit­tle into se­cu­rity and de­fence.

Justin Trudeau’s con­cerns about “root causes” are ad­dressed in the $35 mil­lion over five years ear­marked for a new of­fice of com­mu­nity out­reach and coun­ter­rad­i­cal­iza­tion.

But many Cana­di­ans will sym­pa­thize with Con­ser­va­tive MP Ja­son Ken­ney when he tweeted: “$675 mil­lion for CBC; $8 mil­lion for coun­tert­er­ror­ism. Th­ese num­bers say it all.”

The Lib­er­als added in­sult to in­jury by hack­ing the fund­ing for mil­i­tary equip­ment by $3.7 bil­lion over five years. The ex­pla­na­tion pro­vided was that they were merely shift­ing the money to fu­ture years, but it had the happy co­in­ci­dence of flat­ter­ing the bot­tom line and keep­ing the deficit below $30 bil­lion.

To this point, the Lib­er­als have traded on the in­tan­gi­bles of their tele­genic leader and the power of pos­i­tive think­ing.

The bud­get changes ev­ery­thing — it’s like Dorothy’s tran­si­tion from the mono­chrome of Kansas to the vivid tech­ni­colour of Oz.

Yet there are no guar­an­tees a mer­cu­rial voter base is go­ing to en­dorse bor­row­ing money for spend­ing that will have to be re­paid by their chil­dren, or by fu­ture tax in­creases.

And, de­spite the Lib­er­als’ cer­tainty in their own right­eous­ness, there are no guar­an­tees that a ner­vous elec­torate will con­tinue to ad­vo­cate such a cava­lier ap­proach to the na­tion’s se­cu­rity, par­tic­u­larly if, God for­bid, there is a ter­ror out­rage closer to home.

We’re not in Kansas any­more.

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