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[Ottawa – March 11, 2011] – If the government manages to avoid an earlier non confidence motion, the budget may well become the frame for an ensuing election, which appears increasingly unavoidable. Obviously, there is a strategic advantage in being able to actively frame your election strategy in the most visible act of Parliament – the federal budget. Add to this the fact that the Government enjoys higher confidence on managing the economy than the opposition and that there has been a modest but significant improvement in outlook on country and the economy going on for the past six months. Given these strategic advantages, it isn’t surprising that the Liberals might want to pre-empt the budget and bring the government down on a non confidence motion related to ethics and democracy.

In a normal political environment, this new budget would be a pretty dreary and unsurprising affair. Most financial degrees of freedom have been exhausted with a rather dramatic program of continued spending on military, security and justice themes. Coupled with a large deficit and an only tepidly performing economy, one wouldn’t expect much in the way of surprises. But this isn’t a “normal” political environment as there is a hair trigger between Parliament and the hustings. This introduces the possibility of some drama and surprise – both in the government’s positioning of its budget, and in the opposition’s response.

For the government, there are three main options which must be scrutinised against a political calculus of risk/reward. This calculus may be confounded by the recent parliamentary shenanigans but it is most likely already fixed. It hinges on the endgame (secure minority, hell or high-water majority). Given the current state of the voter landscape, a secure minority could well provide something tantamount to majority for a few years, as it would be very hard to entice an electorate back into another campaign any time soon if the ensuing election were to result in something similar to what we have now. So a good guess is that there won’t be any swinging for the fences in the about to be tabled budget, given the government’s modest but significant lead right now. Nonchalance is, however, unjustified in a political context where the government has been uncomfortably close to the spectre of seeing its seats diminished to the point that it could not withstand the challenge of a coalition alternative.

So, option one would be the steady-as-she-goes/stay-the-course approach; low risk but no real upside either. The advantages of this approach is that it plays well to the government’s advantage as economic steward and conveys a good equilibrium of fiscal rectitude and sound economic management. It may not win new converts and it could be problematic in some places such as Quebec and with women, but all in all, a pretty sound bet.

Option 2, would be the surprise option. A series of major surprises and inducements wrapped up under the rubric of an extension of Canada’s (no the Harper Government’s) Economic Action Plan. This would allow all kinds of trinkets to be put under the tree (perhaps even arena-based infrastructure programs?). Perhaps some new tax relief presented as a jobs engine could attract new voters to the Conservative cause. This approach would be riskier and have the added disadvantage of clashing with the ideological impulses of the government; but those compromises have been endured in the service of political imperatives by this government before and couldn’t be ruled out if the endgame is majority or bust.

Then there is option 3, fresh from the Rob Ford playbook in Toronto: “Stop the Federal Gravy Train!” Running against waste and abuse, and against Ottawa is an evergreen political strategy. It rarely turns out to be an enduringly popular strategy (let alone good public policy) but we know that the public always have an exaggerated sense of the economic benefits of cutting “waste and abuse”. This strategy, which would see Draconian cuts outside of the identified priority areas of defence and justice, could be very attractive, particularly in some of the Ontario/Toronto seats that lay between the Conservatives and majority. The only obvious drawback is that it’s harder for the government in Ottawa to run against Ottawa when it has been the incumbent in Ottawa for over five years. It’s also notable that in the United States there has been a surprisingly strong pushback against restraint measures targeted at public sector unions, despite the more visible Tea Party movement which clearly see public sector as anathema.

For the opposition, it will be fairly difficult to set up a fierce challenge to a steady as she goes budget as they have been coauthors of this approach and as the public are feeling aright about the economy. The opposition may well want to turn to other themes such as character and democracy if possible.

Despite strenuous protests to the contrary, both the Government and the opposition will be closely watching those chequered media polls in the coming days to assess which cards will be played in which order.

6 comments to BUDGET DAY STRATEGIC OPTIONS – March 14, 2011

  • RM

    I am actually shocked at these polls – the Canadians I know would not stand for even a whiff of unethical behaviour, despite the economic environment. They and I always believe that someone who is perceived to cheat or lie, are not to be trusted and especially when they promised to be white knights when they took over. If these numbers are correct, I am ashamed to be Canadian – if it means we are more about money than we are about the character of the people to whom we entrust our country.
    This is definitely a negative turning point in our societal norms if any one of us an condone what’s gone on within the Harper party. Are we so cynical as to hunger for power by any or all means, like it’s become in the US? Please say it isn’t so!

  • Paddie Ferraro

    What has occured with the Government of Canada is trival compared to the $44 Million the Liberals still owe the Canadian Tax Payer…Memories are very short if this is not brought front and centre during this demanded election spurred by the 3 Opposition Parties. Conservatives have kept the tiller even and the economy stable despite nothing contributed by the Libs…time to send a clear message of a Strong Majority for Stephen Harper.

  • CS

    RM, if Harper’s Conservatives make you sick, then the Liberals must make you terminally ill. The cynicism you rant about is from misguided thoughts that any of these politicians are better than the others. We don’t need an election or any more ranting and raving that is contantly in the media. We elected them to do a job, so let’s let them!

  • jacopo

    Harper is worse than the Liberals. He is condoning a systematic dedceit and corruption that makes Adscam look silly. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars wasted on incessant advertising to hoodwink Canadians everything is fine under Harper when he has racked up the biggest deficit in Cnadian history. He drove us into deficit before the recession and denied a recession was possible despite repeated warnings.

    Harper’s spending is out of control and his dishonesty makes Mulroney look like an honest guy.

    Time to give Ignatieff a try and see what he can do. I am sure he is more honest than this present disgrace of a PM.

  • CS

    Listening to all of the propoganda from all parties is bordering on deplorable. Whether it’s the Conservatives, Liberals, or NDP, they all spew out mistruths to lure the converted their way. Reading the posts from the brainwashed converted, whether left or right, is sad at best. Those who believe that one is better than the other deserve what we are getting. To suggest that one scandal is somehow not as bad as another is simply no different than a terminally ill cancer patient who dies of a heart attack. Jesse Ventura during the last presidential election said it best, I vote none of the above. Oh, but i guess we can’t look at something from the US as that would be wrong. Give it a rest.

  • Forever Liberal

    Its amazing that whenever a liberal is given facts, they fight tooth and nail to twist those facts for their own benefit.
    Twist these facts:
    1) The budget deficit was forced upon the gov’t by the opposition. Anyone who disagrees can’t read.
    2) The only group that went public with their “Block” coalition desires were the liberals. Dion started it and Ignatieff supported it. If Harper wins with a slight minority, Ignatieff will form a coalition with a separatist party that doesn’t care about anyone or anything outside of quebec. To support this is treason.
    3) The liberal party IS the only party that still owes canada for 1 billion dollars in ADSCAM spending. Pay canadians the money you owe.