Cut and won

The last time I was in Edmonton covering a provincial budget, Treasurer Stockwell Day was implementing a single-rate personal income tax. Goodness, that was 11 years ago. Anyway, the eyes of the nation, or at least of parts of Ottawa, will turn again to Edmonton tomorrow when rookie provincial budget minister Ted Morton delivers the save-Stelmach-if-he-can-be-saved budget. What follows will be instructive for the rest of us.

The partisan context is way different in Alberta than federally, of course: the Stelmach Progressive Conservatives are outflanked on the right by Wildrose Alliance and face no credible opposition to their left. That’s why Morton is treasurer, after all; after running up the fastest spending increases of any province in Confederation for a decade, the Klein-Stelmach Conservatives must now paint themselves as late but firm converts to fiscal discipline. But the Harper Conservatives, who face no opposition to their right, will nonetheless be watching what Morton does, and how it’s received, with interest.

That’s because the Harper Conservatives must decide how, or whether, to dig out of the federal deficit. When I quizzed several senior Conservatives on the matter before the New Year, they still seemed genuinely unsure and nervous about how fast to proceed. Cut popular programs and you seem mean. Let deficits bloat and you look out of touch (and, perhaps, demotivate part of your base). I know what they’d like to do: hold taxes and transfers steady, leaving cuts as the only option and program spending as the only target. A year or two of that would cut sharply into the Liberal program legacy. But the question is whether they dare do it.

Along come today’s Harris-Decima numbers, canvassed in the Globe by Bruce Anderson. Respondents are asked whether they want to “continue stimulus spending” or “control spending.” That very mild choice — neither option is phrased in an unflattering way — produces a pretty even split, with partisans of “continued” spending outnumbering fans of “control” by 51% to 49%, 44%, without a huge amount of variation by geography or demographic.

Anderson reads this as a big yellow light to the Conservatives, but I don’t know about that. I know Liberals who used to tell me, when Chrétien was in office, that if you’re all alone in favour of a policy that attracts 40% support, that’s a pretty good day at the office. The other parties divide the rest (subtract most of Quebec), and you’re fine.

To be really helpful, polling on deficit-control options should test some loaded language. That would show us how strongly the various camps cling to their beliefs. How would people feel about “deep cuts to the budgets of popular and useful programs” compared to “letting Canada pile yet more debt onto the next generation”? Or conversely, how about “giving Ottawa the tools it needs to build a fairer Canada, even if it means settling the bill a little further down the road” versus “shutting down the playpens of out-of-touch Ottawa mandarins”? You can phrase these things a lot of different ways. And people will respond differently as the language gets hotter.

My hunch is that spending cuts have a fierce and resilient constituency the Conservatives can tap and hang onto. But I’m not sure of that. Morton’s budget and the reaction to it will help begin to tell the tale.