Ignatieff on the budget

"Canadians need to know just how deep the hole is that this government is digging"

Ignatieff on the budget

Q: Why did you support the budget and ask for regular reports on its progress rather than demand substantive amendments to it? Surely you don’t consider Mr. Harper’s budget to have been flawless.

A: I said it was a flawed budget. We felt that they’re the government, we’re the opposition—it’s their responsibility to manage this economy, not ours, and that the appropriate role for an opposition is to say, “Are you delivering on your promises, and is there other stuff that you’re going to do if this recession gets worse?” So we’ve put them on probation and said, “There is a problem of trust here.”

Q: Isn’t it the proper job of the opposition to say, “We’re an alternative, let us try”?

A: We will be presenting alternative policy.

Q: I mean defeating the Conservatives and taking government.

A: We had an election on the 14th of October. I had to make a decision whether it was in the national interests of the country to go into an election immediately. In my judgment it was not. I’m very aware that we are in unprecedented economic times. Right across the country everybody’s like swimmers in a swimming pool trying to get their feet on the bottom, and no one knows where the bottom is. In those circumstances, adding political uncertainties was not a responsible choice. I also felt that a coalition was not a responsible choice.

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Q: Why did you sign the coalition document then?

A: I believed very strongly that a credible threat of coalition was the only thing that would get this government to wake up and give us a budget that was in the national interest. You compare where they have moved from the autumn statement of the 27th of November to the budget of the 27th of January; there’s one reason why they moved, which is that they feared that they would lose government. And we’ve now put them on probation because they can lose government in the next months if they don’t deliver on the promises in the budget.

Q: Can you point to a precedent where the opposition declares a confidence vote on a matter like this and the government falls as a consequence? Usually, the government just blows off such votes and remains in power.

A: Well, I think we have set the table so that it would be extremely difficult for this government to continue in office if they don’t continue to have our support. If we withdraw support they are back to where they were at the end of November, facing a House where they are short of the majority necessary to get their legislation. They can’t blow that off.

Q: The amendments ask the government to report on things like whether the budget and the stimulus package as they are being implemented “are minimizing existing job losses,” and “creating the employment opportunities of tomorrow.” Those are very vague phrases.

A: Not if you look at the failure to fund Genome Canada. Can you think of a better way to create the jobs of tomorrow than to fund Genome Canada?

Q: So it’s going to be up to you to define whether or not the government’s performing well within the very large and loose parameters that this amendment sets up?

A: We would also like to get the parliamentary budget officer in on this—he’s not an officer of the Liberal party, he’s an independent officer—we’d want him to assess things like the deficit projections. Many, many experts are already saying of the Flaherty budget that they are underestimating the revenue drop and overestimating the growth rate, which means that the story they’re telling Canadians about the deficit is not true. Canadians need to know just how deep the hole is that this government is digging. That’s not vague at all, that’s real clear. And decisions like Genome Canada, the decision in respect of the Newfoundland issue— informing a government on the 27th of January that you’re going to change the formula by which their resource revenue offsets are decided—has a devastating impact on one province. One of our criteria is fairness to the regions. Already this government is in difficulty on that issue.

Q: We can expect, then, to be going to the polls this spring if the government’s doing this bad already and you’re determined to bring it down if it doesn’t meet your standards.

A: I don’t engage in idle threats, and I’m not going to issue a threat. I’m simply saying that I was deadly serious when I said there’s some accountability measures, and we are going to take them seriously.

Q: What does it take before you pull the plug on this government and say, “We go to the polls”?

A: I’m not going to enter into hypotheses. What I’m going to say is these are serious accountability measures, and a week into this we already have some concerns. We’re going to watch things, like: is the money promised on infrastructure getting out the door? You can count this stuff. Canadians in the construction industry want the money to flow. Our job is to hold them to making it flow.

Q: So why not be specific, and put down real, firm yardsticks so that everyone knows that if the government doesn’t measure up it’s going to be thrown out?

A: I think you will see that these accountability criteria provide us with a grid which we can present to Canadians almost like a report card and say, “Here’s how they’ve done, folks, here’s the first quarter result. Doesn’t look too good to me,” or “They have met the basic accountability criteria we set down.” My job in opposition is to make sure that the government of Canada keeps its promise to Canadians, and that’s what I propose to do.

Q: One of the criteria is that you have to insure that the deficit is not a burden to future generations. We’re taking on the biggest load of debt since the Second World War. How can that not be a burden to future generations?

A: Well, it’s not a burden if you keep the deficit under control and the plans to get out [of] that are based on reasonable assumptions. As I’ve said, I’m concerned that their assumptions are not reasonable. Now, we’ve gotta watch that very carefully because Canadians, for good reason—because the Chrétien-Martin governments dug us out of deficit—have learned the enormous advantages of not being burdened with structural deficit. And they want the truth, they don’t want to be told a happy song as we sink into the bog, and my job is to say, “Give us the numbers. Just the facts, please, Mr. Flaherty. Just the facts, Mr. Harper.”

For the complete interview, pick up the Feb. 16 issue of Maclean’s, on newsstands now.