WESTON: Let the campaign begin
The federal budget unveiled Tuesday is more of a blueprint for a Conservative election campaign than a road map to the government's fiscal promised land of low taxes, jobs and economic growth.
And an election campaign may be exactly what Canadians are getting in the weeks ahead.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty hadn't even finished delivering Tuesday's budget speech in the Commons when all three opposition party leaders were tripping over each other to say they could not support the government's fiscal plan.
If no one blinks in the next few days, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be seeing the Governor General by the weekend, and it's off to the polls we go, likely on May 2.
While the measures in Flaherty's fiscal plan for the nation may not be enough to head off an imminent election, they will certainly give the Conservatives powerful ammunition to fight one.
Whatever else can be said of the budget, it is an election-ready grab-bag of goodies sure to get the attention of ordinary Canadians, the product of the Conservatives reverting to their pre-recession strategy of targeting potential voters with simple, hearty handouts.
For instance, there is a bit of extra money — less than $2 a day — for the poorest of Canada's poor seniors who receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement.
The government that invented the public subsidy for children's hockey equipment is now offering to pony up taxpayers' money for kids in everything from Boy Scouts to baton-twirling.
It's not much — up to $75 a year in tax credits — but it is enough to give the Conservatives an endless supply of campaign photo-ops of their candidates with happy kids at play.
The same goes for families caring for sick and disabled relatives — the $300 being offered in the budget won't go far to ease the burden of caregivers, but still allows the Conservatives to claim ownership of the issue in a campaign.
One of the most blatant examples of political expediency over prudent policy in the budget is a proposal to spend $400 million extending a popular home energy retrofit program for one year.
The problem is the Harper government announced a year ago that it was killing the program, and now there aren't enough inspectors left in the business to process even a fraction of the homes that could otherwise be retrofitted in a year.
So it goes down the list — a $450 tax break for volunteer firefighters; $5 million to help football fans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup; $22 million to ensure fuel tanks in aboriginal communities meet environmental standards.
It is hard to think of a group of potential Conservative voters missed in Tuesday's budget.
The big question now is whether the budget will survive even until the weekend.
Budget on borrowed time
In the current minority Parliament, the government would need the support of at least one of the opposition parties in order to get the budget passed.
At first glance, it appears the Conservatives have indeed done just about everything they could to woo Jack Layton and the New Democrats.
Some pundits emerged from the budget briefings to say Layton seemed to get almost everything he and his party had asked for — help for low-income seniors; extension of the home energy retrofit program; and funding to attract doctors and nurses to rural and remote areas of the country.
In fact, the NDP could drive a campaign bus through the Conservative proposals.
The financial assistance for low-income seniors, for instance, would only help about a third of the poorest of the poor receiving the income supplement.
Layton had wanted a comprehensive plan to attract rural doctors and nurses.
Instead, the Conservatives are offering to pay off part of medical students' loans to get them to practise in remote areas, a relatively minor scheme that is untested at best.
In the final analysis, there is only one logical conclusion: the Conservatives actually want an election. They just don't want to appear as though they are forcing one.
So far, it seems they could get their wish by the weekend.
Layton's instant thumbs-down on the budget Tuesday has all but sealed the fate of this Parliament.
The budget may not even come to a vote before the Liberals move a potentially fatal non-confidence motion on Friday.
Litany of ethical issues
That motion will condemn the Harper government over a growing litany of ethical issues, and it is almost unthinkable that any of the opposition parties would vote to prop up Harper and his government on that score.
If that triggers an election, the Conservatives already have their campaign script.
As Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said in his budget speech, "Today Parliament faces a choice … between stability and uncertainty … principle and opportunism."
Read: between the Conservatives and the Liberals.
Let the campaign begin.