LIBERALS ROLL DICE WITH BUDGET
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.