National Column: Liberals seem more comfortable than ever

by Chantal Hebert

All governments live by a clock. It typically starts ticking loudly in the third year of a majority mandate, when there is still time to put in place the structural elements of a re-election platform. The next-to-last Liberal budget of the current Parliament begins to lift the veil on the ruling party’s pre-election mindset.

As a fiscal blueprint, Tuesday’s instalment mostly lives up to its advance billing of a placeholder document.

It sticks to the government’s pro-deficit-financing creed, paying little more than lip service to the return to balanced federal books in some post-2019 election future.

Having successfully broken the taboo on running deficits in the last campaign, the party comes across as more comfortable than ever with the notion of doing so again in next year’s election.

Overall, this is not a budget that reads as if it was written with the objective of endearing the current government or Finance Minister Bill Morneau to corporate Canada. Nor does Donald Trump’s shadow loom large over its fine print.

One would be hard-pressed to find in the minister’s third budget evidence that potential and actual policy developments south of the border have, so far, changed the government’s outlook on the way forward.

The possible demise of NAFTA, the lowering of the U.S. corporate tax rate and the latest American barriers to Canada’s softwood exports are all mentioned, but essentially as an aside from the main themes.

One of the shortest chapters in the budget is the one that deals with trade.

As advertised, Trudeau’s mantra of gender parity is woven throughout the document.

Until recently, the NDP has traditionally been the party most identified with the advancement of gender equality.

But even a committed New Democrat government would have been hard-pressed to outdo the feminist rhetoric that permeates every chapter of the 2018 Liberal budget.

At rough count, there are between 600 and 700 references to women in the 300-page budget book.

The Liberals overtook the NDP on the left in the last election. They are unlikely to repeat that exploit in the next election. The New Democrats are not about to spend another campaign fending off the perception that they are sacrificing their social policy ambitions on the altar of fiscal restraint.

But that does not mean the Liberals want to let the NDP reclaim the left-hand lane without a fight.

Only a few months ago the Liberals joined the Conservatives to defeat an NDP motion that called on the federal government to create a national pharmacare program.

Apparently that was then and this is now, for the newest big shiny object in the 2018 budget is a rediscovered commitment to such a plan.

Rediscovered because this is not the first tentative Liberal foray unto the pharmacare field.

The party’s 1997 platform committed a re-elected Chretien government to expand medicare to cover prescription drugs. Those words did not translate into action.

Perhaps for that reason, the government is planning to use the time between now and next year’s election to put down a more concrete foundation for its promise.

Former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins has just resigned his portfolio and his seat to head a federal advisory council tasked with charting a pharmacare course for Trudeau’s government. Given that the next election is about a year and a half away, Hoskins’ mandate is presumably time-sensitive.

The budget is so short on details as to make the page that deals with pharmacare look like a belated add-on.

The only completely new social policy announcement of the 2018 budget appears on page 172, not to be seen again in the highlights of the health-care chapter, or, for that matter, the text of Morneau’s budget speech to the House of Commons. (That’s not for lack of space, for measures to stop the spread of the spruce budworm made it into that text.)

The pharmacare announcement also pre-empts not one, but two, imminent federal reports. The recommendations of a parliamentary committee that has studied the issue are in final drafting stages. And two independent health-care experts commissioned by the government to make recommendations designed to “improve the affordability, accessibility and appropriate use of pharmaceuticals” are due to report next month.

It may be that Liberal strategists wanted to put their claim on the pharmacare promise before the NDP owns the issue. It was less than two weeks ago, at the party’s national convention, that the New Democrats identified a national pharmacare plan as the centrepiece of their 2019 social policy platform.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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