In one of his more exuberant moments in the role of Conservative cheerleader, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney called Tuesday’s pre-election budget his “bestseller.”
Listening to the Quebec minister on Montreal radio one could easily picture him clutching the budget to his chest as he spoke.
It is even possible that he slept with the 300-page brick under his pillow. After all, it devotes an entire chapter to his public safety file.
Over the years, Blaney’s faith in Stephen Harper has been shown to border on religious and he has exhibited a zeal in defending the government’s agenda that is second to none among cabinet members.
Still, in this instance, the minister’s giddiness reflects the mood of his government colleagues as they fast-forward to the upcoming campaign. Given a choice, it is a rare MP seeking re-election who would not prefer coming to a voter’s doorstep bearing gifts.
Tuesday’s budget fulfils most, if not all, of the fiscal commitments undertaken by Harper – starting with a fresh dose of tax relief now that the books are (tenuously?) balanced. Anyone holding out for that promised adult fitness tax credit should know that it is a work in progress.
For better or for worse, the budget reflects the philosophy of the ruling Conservatives. They will be comfortable selling it on the campaign trail.
But the budget’s greatest strength is also its main weakness, for it stands to reinforce the very reason why a majority of voters opted to support one of the other parties four years ago.
Those voters were, for the most part, driven to other choices by a deficit of Conservative policy ambition on almost every front – from the environment to social programs – that used to account for a significant part of the mission of past federal governments.
Tuesday’s budget compounds that deficit. The environment is covered by a few paragraphs but the words “climate change” are blatantly absent from its numerous pages.
If anyone remembers that back in 2005, offering Canadians a wait-time guarantee for medical care was one of the five priorities of the Harper Conservatives; he or she was not in the room when the 2015 budget was drafted.
So entrenched is the government’s pro-tax-cut bias after nearly a decade in power that it chooses to offer relief to voters in less than pressing need rather than address policy areas in dire need of attention.
And so it is that Canadians who have $10,000 a year to spare on a tax-free savings account get a break, but urban commuters who endure daily traffic jams to get to work would have to wait for the second half of a fourth Conservative mandate before a major federal boost to public transit materializes.
A wise opposition would spend little time illustrating the fragility of the balancing act that has brought the Conservatives to exhibit a surplus in the budget.
That only undercuts the other parties’ already reduced capacity to strike a credible course that is both different from that of the Conservatives and appealing.
The government’s budget does paint the picture of steadily increasing budget surpluses – even after the full implementation of the latest round of tax cuts.
Choosing not to implement at least some of those cuts won’t necessarily come at great political cost. The government’s spending priorities over the longer term are not cast in stone. They are subject to its re-election in the fall.
In the last election, Harper made the promises he is now delivering on conditional to the government’s fiscal performance.
There is no reason why the opposition parties cannot similarly present Canadians with a blueprint designed to live up to the full ambitions of its authors over more than a single budget cycle.
With this budget, the Conservatives are hoping to bring back under their tent the voters who supported them four years ago but have since gone missing in the polls.
Many of them were Liberal sympathizers unhappy with Michael Ignatieff’s campaign. More than a few have come home since Justin Trudeau became party leader.
If they voted for Paul Martin or Jean ChrÈtien in the past, chances are those swing voters still believe in a more activist government than Harper is offering in this bare-cupboard budget.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services