Budget fails nation’s needs

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Wed Mar 23 2011

The Conservative government tried to have it both ways in the campaign platform – sorry, budget – that it brought down Tuesday. If, as now seems almost inevitable, it goes down to defeat over the budget or its sorry record on ethics, it will have in hand a lengthy list of tax breaks and benefits to dangle before voters. If by some miracle of last-minute compromise it survives, it will be able to govern with a plan that ducks for now the tough spending choices brought on by its record deficits.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sought to borrow and steal just enough from the opposition parties to keep the government alive. Take, for example, his proposed benefit for caregivers – a straight lift from the Liberal playbook. Instead of seriously addressing the increasingly urgent issue of support for family members caring for infirm parents and spouses at great personal cost, Flaherty proposed a tax credit amounting to a paltry $300 a year.

Its transparent purpose is to undercut the Liberals, whose own more ambitious plan would benefit caregivers by as much as $1,350 (at an overall cost of $1 billion). The Conservatives will surely write a line into their standard campaign speech claiming opposition parties are blocking “help for caregivers.” It will be up to the Liberals, who have led on this issue, to persuade voters not to fall for it.

The budget contains much more along the same lines – a grab-bag of targeted goodies and half-measures aimed at everyone from parents (a tax credit for arts programs) to cities (a welcome $2 billion from the gas tax fund) to volunteer firefighters (another tax credit). There’s modest help for the neediest seniors in the form of an increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and who can argue with that? But there’s no apparent method at work apart from political calculation.

If – and it’s a big if – the government had seriously intended to keep the New Democratic Party onside, its calculations were badly off. Flaherty made gestures toward some of the NDP’s very public concerns, such as helping seniors and extending the popular ecoEnergy Retrofit program for homeowners, but he did not meet it even half way. NDP Leader Jack Layton would have sold his party far too cheaply had he gone along with this budget.

The Conservatives are also kicking the can down the road on spending restraint. A year ago, with the economy still emerging tentatively from recession, Flaherty was suggesting that 2011 would be the year of the axe – spending cuts to tame the $100-billion cumulative deficits of the past two years.

Now all that has vanished. Flaherty still pledges to balance Ottawa’s books by 2015, but the threatened new cuts are nowhere to be found. Instead, he announced yet another “program review” to find $4 billion a year in additional savings. Inevitably, that will mean service cuts and layoffs – but the details will remain conveniently unknown until well after this heated political cycle is behind us.

With some justification, Flaherty patted his government on the back for overseeing an economy that has come out of recession as one of the top performers in the advanced world. He could have used the opportunity to propose at least one bold, lasting initiative that would build for the future. Instead, he settled for short-term politicking and stay-the-course fiscal management. If that’s the best the Conservatives can offer, the opposition parties are right to send them back to be judged by the voters.

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