Chairman's Desk

Trudeau’s long overdue budget is a travesty, but it is also an opportunity to launch an election and define the campaign on his terms

By now, it has become tiresome to point out just how long Canadians have waited since the Trudeau government tabled its last federal budget.

Week after week, Opposition MPs and partisans have piled on with the effect of lending the whole debacle an air of legitimacy, as though many are simply taking potshots at a government besieged by extraordinary circumstance.

But the reality is, this is no partisan matter. It is a travesty. It’s been 726 days and counting — the longest interlude between federal budgets in our nation’s history.

The government will argue that the singular challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic justifies a pass. That it explains nearly two years without a comprehensive fiscal plan. That the prime minister and his cabinet shouldn’t be troubled by the distraction of something as marginal to the country’s administration as a budget.

Parliament’s oversight of the nation’s finances, they argue, can wait while the government carries out its crusade to save us all from this wretched pandemic.

It is a tale as old as the Greek mythology it calls to mind. In this particular political version, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is cast as Odysseus, conquering the demons of the wider world while his kingdom awaits his return, and with it a chance to hear his postwar plans.

And it is a tale that is working for the prime minister. A recent Nanos Research poll shows that more Canadians trust the Liberals with the country’s finances than any other party.

The Canadian electorate is then like Odysseus’ devoted wife Penelope, siting patiently and faithfully by, as they await the return of their leader and a peek into his fiscal plans.

But as Odysseus learns in Homer’s epic, other suitors will arrive — and even the most patient subject will grow weary of waiting.

And so, watch for the prime minister to use the budget, and all the promise inherent in it, as the kickoff to a spring election.

Expect a co-ordinated effort by Trudeau and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, to ensure that Canadians understand exactly what is at stake for them in the upcoming election. That we all understand that we must return the Liberals to power if we want the benefits promised in the budget.

Here’s the playbook the government is likely to follow. Freeland will stand in the House and introduce a decidedly progressive budget designed to appeal, at a high level, to the government’s base and those to its left. It will also contain a series of measures with particular appeal to target groups and priority electoral districts.

And then, as soon as she sits down, Trudeau will walk over to Rideau Hall and ask the acting Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

And if he does, it won’t be the first time Canadians have seen that movie. The 2011 budget pulled the Harper Conservatives’ into a successful election campaign and in 2019, the Liberals’ budget framed the coming election in terms of the middle class.

On balance, with the vicissitudes of vaccine distribution being the one caveat, the opportunity looks to be ripe for the taking. A well-crafted budget — one that assuages Canadian’s post-pandemic anxieties and doesn’t entirely ignore the very real concerns about our ballooning debt — may just be the ticket to a majority government.

And there is evidence that isn’t a crazy idea. That Nanos poll gives the Liberals a nine-point lead over the Conservatives on trust to manage the country’s finances, And as every partisan knows, a Conservative party unable to earn the trust of Canadians when it comes to the public purse, is dead on arrival.

No wonder the Liberals feel as through they have wind in their sails.

And for Erin O’Toole, making up that nine-point gap will not only be a Herculean task, it will be an asymmetrical fight.

On one side, the government with the ability to deploy a budget for all its worth. And on the other side, an Opposition leader with few tools at his disposal to do the job.

The rest of us? As we have for 726 days, we will simply have to wait and see.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 14, 2021.

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