While some opposition leaders mused about it, I did decide to take the night to think about the budget before pronouncing judgement. Can't say it looked any more exciting or impressive in the morning, but it was worth a try.
I'll get to the politics, but for a change let's take a look at the policy. Like many past budgets from Jim Flaherty, I found this one bland and lacking in imagination and vision. Which as I've also said before isn't really surprising; conservatives don't believe in the vision thing.
What we got in Budget 2011 was a smattering of initiatives here and there that nibble around the edges, but don't really go hard after any major issues. You do, however, get a sense of where their priorities lay. And, to delve into politics for a just a minute, you can see the same strategy the Conservatives ran on in 2008 at play: selected low-cost items designed to appeal to specific niche groups.
There's a small bump to the guaranteed income supplement for seniors, a tax credit for kids in arts programs, a caregiver tax credit, a volunteer firefighters tax credit, lots of little things that. They love tax credits, even if they complicate the tax code. None of them amount to much, but it allows them to say they're helping all these different groups. Most people don't dig past the headline to see it's peanuts.
While the budget nibbles around the edges in a lot of areas, it fails to take action on any of the major issues looming over the country and concerning Canadians. Health care funding is a ticking time bomb and the top concern of Canadians; we get a promise to not cut transfers. Pensions are another ticking demographic time bomb, but the word "pension" doesn't appear in the Budget in Brief. They're ending mandatory retirement, but that alone isn't a solution. And the support for seniors is a pittance.
While there doesn't seem to be anything offensive in the budget at first glance (the devil is often in the details of the enabling legislation) it's also a budget that, from a policy perspective, fails to address the needs of the nation. It's yet another opportunity to lead missed by a government too focused on today to think about tomorrow.
Looking at the budget, I think it's fair to say that while they may not have been salivating for an election, the Conservatives weren't going to go out of their way to avoid one either. They went in needing one opposition party to come to their side. The Liberal ask (a reversal on corporate taxes) was a non-starter, and the BQ's list too long and unrealistic. That left the NDP, with a very modest list of requests that gave the government an easy out, if they wanted it.
There are no poison pills that would make it impossible on the face for any party to support it. But while the Conservatives met a few NDP asks, it did it so modestly it's clear that, while they'd be fine with continuing to govern if the NDP somehow swallowed it, they didn't really expect them to and were fine with going to an election. The fact is, if Harper really wanted to do a deal with the NDP, he could (and would) have done so, and cheaply.
That he didn't betrays his true intent: he wants to take his chances in an election. What's going on now is just a kabuki play for the cameras, to try to frame the narrative going into the campaign: whose fault is it we're going to the polls.
For the opposition parties, it's not really about the budget. To outweigh the ethical and legal sleaze surrounding this government, it would have to be a pretty extraordinary budget. It's not. It's a failure of leadership, and when compounded with this government's other failures, there's no way it could be supported.
Interesting that while the opposition will trigger this election, it's hard to call it opportunistic for any of them. Anything can happen, of course. As I've stressed, campaigns matter. But it's hardly the ideal situation for the opposition parties to go on. There are times, though, when a government can no longer be supported, and this is one of them. Let the chips fall where they may.
Now all that's left is to play out the string in Ottawa. We'll be on the hustings, it would seem, as soon as the weekend. I have no time for those who say elections don't matter, or are an inconvenience. This is democracy, and it shouldn't be taken for granted. We have few civic duties, but this is one of them. Take the time to find someone who shares your values and get involved.Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers