Budget debate draws election lines

Debate on the budget kicked off Thursday, with opposition MPs explaining why it was dead-on-arrival and Conservatives saying it would help the country's economic recovery.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (Canadian Press)

The first — and likely only — day of debate on the Conservative budget got underway Thursday.

Liberal finance critic Scott Brison kicked off the debate, laying out the reasons why his party is not supporting the budget that was delivered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on Tuesday. It was also immediately rejected by the NDP and Bloc Quebecois.

Brison hammered the Conservatives over their economic record and accused them of being dishonest with Canadians about it, and about how they will get the country out of deficit. He said Tuesday's budget did not lay out a credible plan for returning the country to a surplus position, as the government is pledging to do by 2015.

He said the Conservatives are hiding costs from Canadians and the budget presented Tuesday backs up that argument.

"With all the items that aren't in this budget, the question we must ask ourselves is, can you trust this government to tell you the truth?" said Brison.

The Liberal MP has led an effort to force the government to disclose cost estimates for crime legislation, the F-35 fighter jet deal and corporate tax cuts. The dispute between the opposition parties and Conservatives over the information is eventually what led to the motion of non-confidence that is being presented Friday and is expected to bring down the minority government. The motion asks the Commons to agree with a committee report that found the government in contempt of Parliament for not supplying sufficient information about the costs.

"It's a historic first in Canada. It's not a good first," said Brison. "We're embarrassed of this government, how it treats Parliament." Brison went on to say the Conservatives are showing not only contempt for Parliament, but for "taxpayers who pay the bills."

He moved an amendment to the budget Thursday morning when he spoke during the debate. The amendment said the House of Commons should not approve the budget "because the government and its policies are out of touch with the economic needs and priorities of Canadian families."

The Bloc Québécois tabled its own subamendment Wednesday, adding that the budget should not be approved because it doesn't contain $2.2 billion for Quebec. The Bloc was seeking that amount in compensation for the province's tax harmonization in the 1990s.

"The Conservative government doesn't care about Quebec," said Bloc MP Daniel Paille, during the debate. "They have stricken Quebec from their list of priorities and soon the people of Quebec will strike them off of theirs."

The first possible vote on the budget would be on the Bloc Québécois subamendment on the second day of debate on the budget. That's set for Tuesday, House Leader John Baird informed the Commons Thursday afternoon.

With the government expected to be defeated Friday, that day of debate is unlikely to happen.

The Liberals announced Wednesday they would use their opposition day in the House of Commons Friday to try to bring down the government on a motion of non-confidence related to the contempt finding of a parliamentary committee earlier in the week. The NDP and Bloc Québécois said they would both support the motion and once it passes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to visit Gov. Gen. David Johnston on Saturday.

Parliament would be dissolved and the campaign would begin immediately.

Even though the writ has yet to drop, MPs that aren't running again made farewell speeches in the House of Commons after question period Thursday.

The debate on the budget lasted several hours before and after question period, with opposition MPs explaining why it was dead-on-arrival and the Conservatives arguing how it would help Canadians and the country's economic recovery.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said budgets are an opportunity "to get results for Canadians" and that the government missed that opportunity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had five years to improve the lives of Canadians, said Layton, but instead, "he made things worse."

Conservative MPs repeatedly defended their record and frequently reminded Liberal MPs of the scandals that plagued them when they were in government, such as the sponsorship scandal.

Tory MP Julian Fantino said the budget does lay out a plan to get the country to a surplus position in 2015 and that politics should be put aside to help Canadians, particularly seniors.

"Canadian seniors have made so many sacrifices and contributions to this country," he said. "And that's why we're committed to doing everything we can to improve their quality of life," he said.

Layton said the NDP wanted to work with the Conservatives to try and amend the budget but he said his offer to cooperate was rejected.