Budget '09: This ain't Right

Solberg: “I know government needed to escape to fight another day. But I’m worried that the price may have been too high.”

How’s this for a Conservative nightmare? Billions to new regional-development programs, failing industries, employment insurance, social housing, and, ahem, the arts? Millions for a train to nowhere in northern Manitoba? Another $12 million for Quebec cruise ships? In B.C. and Alberta, mayors and premiers also went home happy. In fact, in western Canada, some of the loudest complaints about Stephen Harper’s budget are coming from within the fold. “The Conservatives escaped to fight another day, but what are they fighting for?” former Tory Cabinet minister Monte Solberg wondered yesterday in Vancouver. The Conservative stalwart, who likened Harper’s “dripping red” budget to a “terrible phantasm,” unleashed to “torment” conservatives, worries that Harper has “sacrificed balanced budgets on the alter of political expediency.”

The right-leaning Fraser Institute is also unimpressed. “Irresponsible,” concluded Vancouver-based senior economist Niels Veldhuis, slamming the budget’s “special-interest spending” and “activist economic development policy.” Worse, Veldhuis likened the document to the 2005 Liberal budget: “the attempt, by Paul Martin, to satisfy everyone that, in the end, satisfied no one.” (Indeed, he said, the only difference between it and Harper’s new budget is that Harper’s comes with a “huge deficit.”) “This is not an economic budget,” says Veldhuis. “This is a political budget.”

“I know government needed to escape to fight another day, says Solberg. “But I’m worried that the price may have been too high.” He gives the Tory base six weeks before the sheen of the stimulus package—the across-the-board tax cut and support for home renos—wears off. “There’s no question this was a rush job,” says Solberg. “And there’s no question that taxpayers will pay the bill.” Some of his former colleagues in the house “certainly” feel the same way, he says.

Solberg admits the big-spending, return-to-deficit budget was no doubt painful for Harper. “He’s instinctively conservative: this wasn’t easy for him.” Now an armchair quarterback, Solberg commends the prime-minister’s “charm offensive,” complete with props—“rolled shirtsleeves,” for example—and for trotting his ministers across the country to sell the budget to Canadians. But there’s a bigger question than whether or not Canadians buy it, he says: Will it work? “Adding $20 to $30-billion in spending to a $1.6-trillion economy? I’m not sure it’s going to make a big difference. A lot of this won’t roll out until the third or fourth quarter of 2009, or even next year, when we’re projected to be in recovery.”