The Hamilton Spectator

Liberals fight malaise with budget rollout


If it’s Sunday, it must be AI. Monday is defence. Tuesday? That’s mental-health support for young Canadians.

Before she rises in the Commons next Tuesday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s federal budget will be all-but fully released, culminatin­g a policy and communicat­ions strategy that could fail based on one simple question — is anyone out there listening?

If you’ve ever ignored your to-do list only to wake up one morning to a wave of panic as deadlines suddenly hit you over the head and you realize that you should dealt with these things months ago, you can relate to the Liberal government. Worse, the guy in the next cubicle is shouting slogans at you and gunning for your job. You’ve got to focus.

And so, the Liberals have focused, trying to regain lost ground among millennial­s and gen-Z voters who will decide next year’s election and have gravitated to Conservati­ve Leader Pierre Poilievre.

The Liberal approach should be seen through two prisms leading to budget day.

First, communicat­ions. The Liberals deserve credit for finally killing a Canadian anomaly in which the budget highlights (at least what the government considered highlights) were doled out to individual media outlets for “exclusive” stories leading to budget day. This newspaper would be gifted with the goods on an initiative that might have high appeal to the GTA. The Globe and Mail would get a national policy initiative and the major television networks would get their goodies as well, all attributed to that mysterious government “source.”

The flaw in that strategy came when all major outlets would ignore the “exclusives” of their competitor­s, giving key government initiative­s a short shelf life in the pre-budget consciousn­ess. Alternativ­ely, today’s strategy might falter because of the fire hose approach when daily announceme­nts become too much for an average voter to digest.

“Laying out our plan, step by step, day by day, is an opportunit­y for Canadians to hear from us what it is we’re doing and for there to be a real thorough, reasoned, fact-based debate about a number of the measures,” Freeland said.

Clearly a government that seemed to be in midterm hibernatio­n now appears to be in campaign mode. That’s a good thing, if the Liberals can shake their penchant for over-promising and underdeliv­ering and pledging big numbers for programs that are scheduled for some time over the horizon. As we have pointed out in this space, measures to grow the supply of housing by adding $400 million to the Housing Accelerato­r Fund, creating a $6-billion Canada Housing Infrastruc­ture Fund and measures to both grow the supply of apartments and protect existing tenants are welcome.

There’s also $1 billion over five years on a National School Food Program, an offer of $1 billion in low-cost loans and grants for expansion of affordable child care spaces, $2.4 billion to build the country’s artificial intelligen­ce capacity and $500 million over four years for expanded access to mental health care for younger Canadians.

The Liberals will also spend an additional $8 billion on national defence over five years, but a recruiting shortfall is expected until 2032 and in five years the country will still be short of the NATO benchmark of defence spending at two per cent of GDP.

Quite a list, one Freeland has promised she can deliver without pushing the country beyond a targeted deficit of $40.1 billion and without raising taxes on the middle class.

The government has shaken its malaise, but still faces some fierce headwinds. The nature of its housing commitment­s mean immediate affordabil­ity will be elusive. More than anything, it needs a sign that inflation has been tamed and for that it will need a series of Bank of Canada interest rate cuts beginning in June.

The larger question is whether Trudeau has lost the room. Will these moves get the attention of a coveted voting cohort, or will they be seen as the late mandate flailing of a dying government? The prime minister can hope for the former, but the latter remains a distinct possibilit­y.

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