Opinion: A budget geared for no one, offering nothing

It is increasingly clear that Jim Flaherty doesn't have much of a clue what he would do with the federal treasury if he were freed from a minority parliament.

The most telling comment to come out of the budget lockup was buried in The Globe and Mail. The paper quoted a remark made by an unnamed Conservative official who told reporters, ‘There is nothing in the budget the opposition couldn’t support.’ And that is precisely the problem.

One of the great innovations of Paul Martin’s tenure as minister of finance was the idea that budgets should have themes. After some early, desultory efforts, Martin found his footing and reeled out a handful of budgets built around themes such as deficit fighting, education, innovation and tax reduction that set the country on sound fiscal footing and gave it political direction and policy focus for the better part of a decade.

Over the course of his six budgets as finance minister, Jim Flaherty has pretty much abandoned the conceit of the themed budget. To the extent that his budgets have any focus at all, they tend to be aimed at supporting what passes for an agenda in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa: use targeted spending and boutique tax cuts to micro-target the electorate and keep the Conservative base ginned up, while doing just enough on the fiscal front to keep Bay Street more or less onside.

Part of this is due to the inevitable suite of compromises, concessions and half-measures that go along with governing in a minority parliament. Every minority-government budget is to some great extent a political document, purpose-built for two contradictory goals: persuading at least one opposition party to support it to keep the government afloat, while also serving as a de facto election platform if no one bites.

But looking back over Flaherty’s six budgets, it is increasingly clear that he doesn’t have much of a clue what he would do with the federal treasury if he were freed from the political constraints of a minority parliament. Most of the time, it isn’t even clear that he’s really paying attention to the economic planet on which Canada lives. His fiscal update in November 2008 was famously boneheaded, confidently suggesting that the federal government’s books would remain in the black in the year to come.

The problem wasn’t just that he was insouciant about the credit-crunch-driven recession that was about to wallop the world economy. He also seemed unaware that Ottawa’s books were already headed into the red, thanks to a growing structural deficit that was created by his own cuts to the GST combined with a stubborn unwillingness to do anything about transfers to provinces and to individuals.

Last year’s budget was the ‘ostrich budget,’ wherein Flaherty jammed his head in the sand while punting all the pain for dealing with the deficit down the road. Well here we are down the road, and there’s still pain, and still no plan. Instead, we get the usual budgetary hallucinogens: graphs showing the deficit casually marching down to zero over four or five years and gauzy references to an upcoming spending review that will discover $4 billion in annual savings through ??? get this ??? ‘greater efficiency and effectiveness.’

That would be far more credible if Flaherty had shown any knack for writing budgets that were themselves models of efficiency and effectiveness. That’s a tremendously difficult task even when your boss is trying to run a government that is focused on something approximating the long term. It is that much more difficult when Harper has no obvious vision for what to do with Ottawa beyond helping Conservative friends and harming their enemies, but it is to Flaherty’s ongoing embarrassment that he doesn’t even try.

It is probably true that there is nothing in this budget that the opposition couldn’t support. But that’s just a nice way of saying that there is probably nothing they couldn’t oppose, either. To govern is to choose, and clear and focused spending is the engine of good governance. If ??? as is looking increasingly likely ??? this budget sparks an election, the prime minister, and the electorate, know exactly who to blame.