Strong Leader: Harper’s thrice-bare cupboard

When this guy spends the surplus, he doesn’t mess around, writes Paul Wells

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The legion of pundits who predicted a spring election were wrong. We’ll vote in October as planned. But if it’s any consolation, the Conservatives tabled their election platform in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

It’s a long time since this government called its budgets, well, “budgets.” In 2011, the thing’s title was A Low-Tax Plan for Jobs and Growth. In 2012 and 2013, it was Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity. Last year, it was Creating Jobs and Opportunity.

This year, things are a little different. Sure, the subtitle is almost identical to 2011’s title, with two telling differences: A Balanced-Budget, Low-Tax Plan for Jobs, Growth and Security. But the bold print tells us what Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants the election to be about: Strong Leadership.

What does Strong Leadership look like? It doesn’t look like messing around, sailor. Times are tough. The cupboard is bare. Be grateful for what you’ve got. Sure, there are surpluses, but they are weensy things: $1.4 billion this year (a figure achieved by selling GM stock and trimming the government’s rainy-day contingency reserve), $1.7 billion next, $2.6 billion in each of the two following years. It’s not until 2019, the last year of the next government’s mandate, if it’s a majority government, that Ottawa gets any room to manoeuvre at all.

Which is precisely the point. Harper, Jim Flaherty and Joe Oliver built this flinty little fiscal cabin for us to live in, and Harper likes it fine. But if the Liberals or New Democrats have any dreams for a government that does more, they’re going to have to find ways to pay for it. Ways that involve raising taxes. And that’s not Strong Leadership, is it? It’s soft. It’s weak. It’s entitled. There’s no room for that sort of snivelling in Stephen Harper’s Canada. This is Sparta.

    In order to go before the Canadian people and credibly claim the cupboard is bare, Harper has had to work hard on three separate occasions to bare the cupboard. First was in 2006-08, when he cut two points off the GST and reduced the Chrétien-Martin surpluses nearly to zero. The deficits after the 2008 economic downturn were all the more severe, because Harper had left so little room to manoeuvre. But surpluses came back into view last autumn, and Harper set about cutting them pre-emptively nearly to zero. He did that on one day last October by announcing the so-called Family Tax Package.

    A chart in the budget documents introduces us to Henry and Cathy, a couple earning $120,000 with two children. They’ll receive $6,640 in 2015 from all the tax relief and enhanced benefits announced by the Harper government since 2006. Some 47 per cent of all that money was announced last October. And, unlike almost all new spending announced in the budget, which will be spread out over future years, the new tax relief is immediate. As a measure of the Conservatives’ preference for tax cuts and gadgety tax benefits over direct program spending, consider the total value of each in 2016-17. Tax cuts account for a $7.1-billion change to the budget balance in that year. Direct federal spending will account for $1.4 billion. If a reporter tells you about “big new Conservative campaign spending promises,” assume he is still so stuck in the patterns of discourse he learned under previous governments that he hasn’t learned how to talk about this one.

    The third cupboard-baring exercise, made immeasurably easier by the first two, is this budget. It lays out comparatively modest spending plans, but takes care to announce spending, not just for this election year, but for the next three years. There’s new money for the Canada Foundation for Innovation—$1.33 billion over six years, starting in 2017-18. There’s up to a billion per year on public transit—starting in the same year. And there’s about a billion in new defence spending per year, also starting in 2017-18. Nothing’s too good for our men and women in uniform, and if it means binding an NDP government to a three per cent annual increase in defence spending, starting halfway through its mandate, well, that’s Strong Leadership.

    Stephen Harper wants a federal government that does less, especially in social programs, than it did when he arrived in Ottawa. He will not compete with other parties for grandeur of vision. He will call their grandeur reckless. His discipline is formidable. Last week, the parliamentary budget officer said this budget will mark five years of continued reductions in federal direct program spending as a fraction of GDP. That decline in Ottawa’s share of the economy is unprecedented, the PBO said. Tuesday’s budget projects that the trend will nearly double in length, through 2019-20. If you don’t like it, if you think this trend line marks the frittering away of Canada’s collective ambition, then you know, more clearly than ever, whom not to vote for. Stephen Harper has laid his bet for the toughest election of his life.


    Strong Leader: Harper’s thrice-bare cupboard

    1. Well, Harp certainly knows what the inside of a cupboard looks like.

      And we all know what happened to Sparta.

      • LOL!!!

    2. Paul – I’d respectfully submit that what you call “emptying the cupboard”, others would call “returning tax money to the people who paid it”. I would love to see the debt paid down responsibly, but it’s fair to say that a large number of Canadians would rather pay less tax, and recognize that this means less federal spending.

      • I am glad that you are “Happy Canadian” I am not.
        Even though, as senior citizen, I would have some benefits from the Harper’s proposed election budget but I rather see a budget that addresses youth unemployment, cost of post-secondary education, environment/climate change, crumbling infrastructure and disappearance of well paid manufacturing jobs.
        With this kind of budgets (regardless of the Party in power) I do not see bright future for our children and grandchildren. Do you?

      • Actually, that is not true. I would call it “returning the tax dollars paid by many to the few people who vote for Harper”. As in, those of us who do not have children (and who already have a LOT of tax dollars allocated to those who do), or who are not particularly wealthy, or are from single parent families, are getting a whole lot less of “our” tax dollars back than those who Harper is targeting.

    3. What’s to complain about Paul Wells – putting money back into the pockets of ordinary citizens?
      Oh, the thought of it!

      • I consider myself pretty ordinary. But as a divorced middle-income parent whose child resides primarily with her mother, I get zilch. No, the increased ceiling for TFSAs doesn’t count; if I have no money available to save, it’s nothing but a mocking tease.

    4. The federal government has to spend less so the provinces have fiscal room to spend more. There is only one taxpayer. We are an aging society. Provinces are responsible for health care.

      Stephen Harper seems to be the only national party leader who understands this demographic fact.

      Stephen Harper is NOT going to be Kathleen Wynne’s tax collector, which is the job Justin and Tom want.

    5. Wells’ ‘Harper’s long-game’ theory is getting tiresome.

      • Well, I suppose I could make up something else that he’s not doing for your amusement.

    6. It’s funny how a spending program that is delivered through the tax system is called returning tax money to the people who paid it. If the government had said we will subsidize day care to the tune of a few billion dollars we would call that a spending program and get excited about deficits and irresponsible spending and how the money is just going to get wasted. If we say we are going to provide $2 billion in tax breaks to folks with kids, we call it returning tax money and no-one frets about where the money is actually going to go. And we certainly don’t worry about all the folks who don’t qualify and who aren’t getting anything back.

      • Bingo. Thank you, sums it up nicely.

        And may I just add, while this government is proving that it does seem to care about hard-working Canadians, it sure as hell doesn’t act like it cares about non-working Canadians. The unemployed and under-employed can go eff themselves apparently.

        • well lets get some fact here. Unemployment at 6.8 % is at it’s lowest point that it was in the 10 year .. From 1994 to 2005 the 11 years that Chretien/Paul Martin were running things the unemployment rate by year was 10.4 9.5 9.6 9.1 8.3 7.6 6.8 7.2 7.7 7.6 7.2 6.8

          in 2006-08 Harper had it down to 6.3, 6.0 and 6.1 Then the worst world wide depression a generation happened along. The Canadian Unemployment rate went up 8.3 and 8.0…. which was great compared to the US rate which basically was double to what it was in 2005.

          If Harper is rough on the unemployed then the last Liberal regime must have hated them.

          • Actually, the Liberals inherited an unemployment rate above 11% from the Tories which they reduced to 6.4% by the time they left office, and which 9 years later Harper has turned into 6.8%.
            Nice try, though.

          • Nice try. Recent statistic show that the quality of jobs created under Harpers “leadership” are lower wage jobs and part time jobs with few benefits or no benefits at all.
            Jobs created in late 1990 and early 2000 were better quality jobs with higher pay.
            Since 2006 and up to now youth unemployment is running 12 to 15%. In this budget I do not see anything to address this problem. Like Joe Oliver said the other day: “this problem will be solved by Mr. Harpers granddaughter”!! And he is our Finance Minister, second in command in Harper Government! Wow.
            Our future are our children and grandchildren and this Government only thinks and plans how to get re-elected this fall. Shame.

        • Well, I think it is a sensible budget. Ask the NDP or the Liberals to fund make-work programs as they have in the past. And I think Paul’s summary is not bad. As is Coyne’s in NP. The Feds are funding some infrastructure, but I thouight that was the realsm of city and provincial taxpayers. The left and part left have to stop thinking of the national pot as a slush to be directed to their welfare.

    7. well I guess that it becomes a clear question of whether the people trust the Government with an extra 2% of everything we spend or whether we are better off with it in our pockets to spend as we see fit.

      • Whose pocket? I am pretty sure I get no tax relief in this budget.

      • I’m not seeing any of it; I don’t fit any of Harper’s target demographics.

        Plus, there’s that BIG hole he’s dug over the past seven years. As long as there’s that debt, he isn’t cutting taxes – he’s deferring them.

    8. Wells thinks balanced journalism means writing negative articles about both major parties on alternate weeks. I wouldn’t mind it so much if he wasn’t wrong half the time……

    9. Spectacular example of fiduciary responsibility. Borrow billions to save a floundering bloated corporation – then, having liquidated that equity position, instead of using the cash to repay that debt, blow it all on just one (election) year’s budget. “See! We’ve balanced the budget! See!” “Er. . . anyone can balance a budget with borrowed money.” “Irrelevant! Besides the point! All that matters is that this budget is, long last, balanced (like the ones we inherited from the previous ‘profligate’ management.” “‘Profligate’ – I don’t think it means what you think that it means.”

      Bottom line? A budget balanced with 1) borrowed money, and 2) reneging on debts owed the provinces isn’t. Isn’t balanced that is.

      It’s like paying off a month’s credit card bill with a cash advance on the same credit card. Irresponsible.

    10. Harper does appear to have a grand vision when it comes to war. Harper loves to get Canada involved in wars especially Vietnam type quagmire wars; we are now involved in two with infinite drains on the treasury.
      Combined with revenue killing vote buying tax breaks, war and secret police costs should keep us close to broke as a country long into the future.