Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The budget and its fallout

A few quick thoughts off the top about the budget and the surrounding politics that now see us on the brink of an election campaign...

We have been witnessing an onslaught from the Harper government in terms of a virtual campaign since at least January. They have had a wave of ministers and MPs announcing Economic Action Plan items across the country, often thematically based in order to speak to given issues that could be weaknesses (forestry, R&D, environment, etc.). They have used taxpayer money, obscenely to the tune of at least $26 million since January, to finance a public relations campaign on our television screens in an attempt to boost support for the government and its economic messaging. They have ratcheted up the ugly personal attacks in the form of their negative ads, attempting to undermine Michael Ignatieff's political viability. All indications have been that Mr. Harper has been preparing for an election.

The opposition parties have signalled their priorities for a while now. The Liberals drawing lines in the sand over the sole-sourced fighter jet proposal that at $30 billion (according to the PBO) directs resources in a direction Canadians just aren't comfortable with. Corporate tax cuts, massive prison build costs have also been objected to by Liberals. The Bloc had its line, the HST deal. The NDP had its shopping list.

So what does Mr. Harper do? He ignores the party he detests, the Liberals. Of course he does.

There are some musings about the HST deal as it may actually come but maybe he sees little political advantage to it as the Conservative numbers in Quebec aren't good and he doesn't see an uptick that's there to be had if he follows through.

But he plays with the NDP a little, gives them juuuust enough to think about, doling out a few items that maybe they might support. A modest boost to the GIS that in practical terms does little for seniors. $12 a week for a single person, what does that buy you at the grocery store these days? It's not nothing but there hasn't been an increase in years. Nothing on pensions, the Conservatives are prepared to ride on their private proposal that they floated in the fall. Sure there's an Eco Energy retrofit give but this is something the Conservatives have offered before, not a hard one. Note too that the budget is all dolled up in Economic Action Plan colours so they can wave it around across the country. It's The Next Phase of Canada's Economic Action Plan™.

And Harper thinks maybe he gets the NDP with it. Or maybe he doesn't. In either scenario, he either gets to continue governing or carry on to the election that he's been gearing up for all along.

Except that he's now facing a current that is out of his control. There are the Bruce Carson allegations that seem to keep coming. His officials charged with Elections Canada Act breaches. The historic contempt. He's facing ads that tell those stories to Canadians for the first time in his tenure. Some polls suggest the mud is starting to stick. The ethics and arrogance story line is getting picked up. And even the economic competence of his government that is much vaunted by them and parroted by friendlies isn't so formidable in the eyes of voters.

The little bit of drama this afternoon where everyone was on tenterhooks waiting for Jack Layton to speak and indicate whether his part would support the budget was a refreshing reminder of political reality and how it will intrude and trample on all our little preconceived story lines. This is what an election campaign will bring and those who like control, i.e., Mr. Harper, are going to be out of luck.

Has Harper been on his game? Did he commit a gaffe on Libya? Was it normal to lie down with the fainting student? Can you picture another world leader doing that? Does he seem a little too eerily calm and detached these days as if his heart is not in it? Is there a demeanour that suggests that he knows the land mines are multiplying and he's just trying to get away with it for just a bit longer? That he senses his highly spun bubble world is just not as mighty as it's been for these last few years?

Interesting poll yesterday that had the parties at their 2008 levels. Ekos was in that ballpark too with a major poll recently. If it's go time, that's not a bad place to be at all.