PM gambles that voters care about the deficit, little else

TheGlobeandMail.com – National – Stephen Harper’s government has brought down the most austere, deficit-fighting document since Paul Martin set out to balance his budget in the nineties
Published on Friday, Mar. 05, 2010. Last updated on Friday, Mar. 05, 2010.   John Ibbitson

We’re going to ignore the environment, because you don’t care. We’re going to balance the budget, because you do care. We’re willing to risk a fight with public servants, because you want us to. We’re not going to spend money on anything new, because you don’t want us to. Please vote for us.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s line-in-the-sand budget is really an election manifesto, a blueprint for a campaign in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives will sell themselves as tough, disciplined and determined to rein in federal government spending.

And if you’re all that worried about a warming planet, go ahead and vote for someone else.

This government has brought down the most austere, hell-and-high-water, deficit-fighting document since Paul Martin set out to balance his budget in the nineties. They believe that is what you want.

By prohibiting any growth in departmental operating budgets, the Conservatives are forcing the bureaucracy to accept wage freezes or job losses or both. By slashing planned spending by $17.6-billion, the government is closing the tap on any major spending initiatives for half a decade, once the stimulus money runs out.

And by balancing the budget without tax hikes – though only if you believe rising Employment Insurance premiums are not a tax – the Tories are offering themselves as the party of no tax pain in exchange for no spending gain.

That means little or nothing will be done to fight global warming, to improve preschool education or daycare, to continue with infrastructure renewal, to re-equip the military. (Although here, spending growth is slowed rather than frozen. The Tories still love the army.)

But the Conservatives don’t care, for two reasons. The first is that they think most Canadians – or at least the 35 to 40 per cent whose votes they need to stay in power – care more about keeping their own money and balancing the government’s books than about climate change.

One of the few new investments in this document is in satellites that will help us watch the polar ice cap melt, and research that will help us measure how many fish are dying in the Great Lakes.

Let the three opposition parties fight over who is greener, let them rage at the Conservatives’ callous disregard for needed investments. They’ll split the vote, such as it is.

The second reason for taking this path is that the real pain is still a year away. The economic stimulus package from last year’s budget will continue to wash over the Canadian economy for the rest of 2010. Real-world conditions dictate that cuts, not just freezes, will be needed if the deficit is to disappear by mid-decade.

In the next Conservative budget, if there is one, we’ll learn how truly committed to eliminating the deficit this government is. But by then the election will likely have come and gone.

Of course, Mr. Harper has been wrong before. Voters could look at this budget and go: “There’s nothing here to improve health care, to provide daycare. I do care about global warming. Fighting the deficit is important, but not that important.” In which case, this budget will one day be seen as a death knell.

But the Conservatives are gambling that voters don’t want to be bought, that they want to keep their money, and that saving the environment can wait until the jobs come back. The Conservatives are probably right.

There is sense in the government’s aims. Canada weathered the last recession better than most other developed nations because the federal and – most of the time – provincial governments kept their books balanced and debt low, leaving room for decisive action when it was needed.

Given the inevitability of future recessions, and the pressures of an aging population, making deficit reduction a top priority is wise.

But it is also politically astute. As the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois decry what they will call the mean-spiritedness and shortsightedness of this budget, people will ask how they plan to balance the books while investing in green jobs and pre-kindergarten teachers.

That’s just what the Conservatives want, in the election that is sure to come.

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