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VIBERT: Budget might calm Liberal nerves

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

The Liberals won the 2015 federal election by outflanking the NDP on the left, and this week’s budget served notice that they won’t stray far from that same basic playbook in 2019.

When federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau finally got to his feet in the Commons Tuesday, it was to rain money down on crucial blocks of voters that helped the Liberals form the government four years ago, and who they’ll need again to win this fall.

The big picture was a $23-billion deluge of new spending that — by the time it fell across a multitude of worthy causes and recipients — landed mostly as a soft sprinkling. The budget spreads the largesse a mile wide and an inch deep.

It is by definition an election budget. There won’t be another before Canadians vote in October. But does it do enough to arrest the Liberals’ current slide down the polls greased by the SNC-Lavalin affair? That, of course, remains to be seen.

The Liberals have more going for them than this budget, and it starts with the Conservatives. When things look bleakest for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government, the Conservatives can be counted on to rush their breathless leader Andrew Scheer in front of a bank of microphones and, almost magically, Justin starts looking pretty good again.

Or they hatch a scheme to draw attention to themselves and give Canadians pause, like their display Tuesday concurrent with the budget speech.

Earlier Tuesday, the opposition Conservatives and NDP lost their attempt to reignite the SNC-Lavalin fire by having the justice committee recall star witness Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Perhaps because they are more practised in the art of accepting defeat graciously, the NDP did.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, took their tantrum into the Commons. They whooped, hollered and pounded their desks to drown out the finance minister and when they grew tired of annoying every Canadian who tuned in the CBC to hear the budget, with typical juvenile disinterest they left the House.

If you’re wondering what would possess a political party to turn itself into a circus sideshow when it wants to be seen as the government-in-waiting, the Conservatives will likely tell you it seemed like a good idea at the time. So did slipping on socks in case it gets chilly later, but still going with the sandals.

But back to the budget the Conservatives ignored, except to claim it was somehow part of the SNC-Lavalin “coverup,” a line their leader dutifully delivered and kept his record of overreaching on the affair perfect.

For fiscal conservatives, there’s lots to dislike in this budget and the Conservatives will eventually get around to not liking $20-billion deficits, which is exactly where the Liberals want them.

If you don’t like the deficit, what would you cut, is the question the budget is designed to force the Conservatives to answer, and to make it easier for them it’s multiple choice.

There’s help for millennials who are ready but not able to buy their first home; big bucks for municipal infrastructure; a new job skills training plan; lower interest on student loans; more money for low-income seniors; subsidies for farmers hurt by the new North America trade deal; and a total of more than $8 billion over five years to improve the living conditions of Indigenous people and advance the reconciliation agenda.

The housing initiatives, along with some tentative steps toward a national pharmacare program, take a bite out of the NDP’s lunch.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh immediately said both of those budget initiatives are far too timid to address the needs of Canadians. That’s fine with Liberals. With the New Democrats stuck in the mid-teens in national polls, the Liberals know they don’t need to do much to hang on to the progressive voters they won over in 2015. If their disagreement with the NDP boils down to a matter of degree, Liberals know that most of those voters will stick with them, if only to avert the risk of a Conservative government.

The government is billing this budget as a remedy for the anxiety Canadians are feeling about the future. That seems like a tall order for any budget, but this one has enough good stuff to calm the jangled nerves of some Liberals, at least.

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