The federal election is no more than six months away, but the media—and others—have already declared the campaign officially underway. And that’s the lens through which today’s budget will be read by anyone interested in discerning how the federal Conservatives intend to position themselves for a fourth term in office.
But you didn’t have to wait for today to find that out. With rare exception, this Government doesn’t like surprises. For months, the Government’s public messaging, complemented by a slow drip of pre-budget leaks and announcements, has provided a clear sense of what the budget would hold.
So too, for that matter, have each of the last several years’ Economic Action Plans, with their steady focus on measures to create jobs and economic growth, to support families and communities across the country, and on strengthening Canada’s place in the world. Economic Action Plan 2015 is no different, building on the priorities of past budgets and, more important, reinforcing the core Conservative narrative—one that they will drive from now until election day: “Ours is the Government, under the steady leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that not only understands the priorities of Canadian families, but can be counted on to deliver measures that will make them, and their communities, safer, more secure and prosperous.”
Economic Action Plan 2015 is built to demonstrate, again, that this is a government that says what it is going to do, and does what it says. There are no surprises. Promise made, promise kept. Take income-splitting—a long-promised tax break measure one would expect to see included in a budget, but announced instead months ago.
And what about balancing the budget? Check. Investments in infrastructure for our communities? Check. Increasing the tax-free savings account limits? Check. Cutting taxes for small businesses? Check.
And while some will argue that the recent economic turbulence spells trouble for the economy-focused PM, there is an equally powerful counter-argument to be made. Canadians understand that Canada is just one player in a complex global economic web, and that we’re sometimes subject to bumps originating beyond our borders. Despite that, the Government will tell Canadians, “We’re still balancing the budget (we’re going to run a surplus in fact), we’re making significant investments in our communities and we’re cutting taxes to put more money back in your pockets. Economic Action Plan 2015 is proof that our plan is working.”
On this point, the real question—the one you can expect every Conservative to put to Canadians as they fan out to tout the benefits of the budget—won’t come as a surprise to anyone. It is “In tough economic times, who do you trust more: Stephen Harper, who is willing to make the tough decisions required to be prime minister and still deliver a budget like today’s, or the other guys?”
The same holds true when it comes to the other key current public policy issue of the day—national security. With new investments announced in Economic Action Plan 2015 for Canada’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as for the military, the Conservatives are trying to blunt the Opposition attack that Bill C-51—the Government’s new anti-terror legislation—imposes new obligations on those agencies without commensurate new funding. More important, it creates an opportunity for the Conservatives to remind Canadians that theirs is the only government that understands terrorism isn’t something that can only happen outside of our borders, and is taking action to better protect them.
The Opposition is, predictably, opposing the Government’s plan. The NDP and the Liberals are saying they would take away the Government’s “boutique tax cuts”—like income-splitting and doubling the TFSA—and they’ll say they would spend more on infrastructure, that they would do more for “middle-class families,” that they’d invest more in oversight for Canada’s national security apparatus.
Politically, the real test for both opposition parties will be whether they can say, with straight faces, that they won’t recreate the deficits Conservatives have worked so hard to eliminate, and that they won’t raise taxes.
So, while the budget is not an election platform, it will help crystallize the Conservative value proposition as a government with a steady, experienced leader focused on the priorities of Canadians, that balanced the budget while cutting taxes. And, it will force the Opposition to talk about those very issues that play to Conservative strengths—jobs, the economy and the safety of Canadians.