Is Flaherty's offer of budget help for seniors enough for the NDP? - Macleans.ca

Is Flaherty’s offer of budget help for seniors enough for the NDP?

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Now that we have a date for the federal budget, March 22, the big question is whether it will pass or become the trigger for an election.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sent a pretty clear signal today about what he’s willing to do that just might allow Jack Layton’s NDP MPs to vote for the budget, keeping the Tory minority alive, without feeling utterly humiliated.

After announcing the budget day in Parliament’s Centre Bloc, Flaherty was asked by a reporter if he felt any pressure to include items in his 2011 fiscal plan that might allow the Layton to support it in the House. Not surprisingly, Flaherty denied any sense of obligation to sweeten the deal for the NDP.

But after declaring there would be no significant new spending, and repeating yet again that the budget’s main focus would be reducing deficits and getting the government’s book back in the black, Flaherty pointedly signaled the likelihood of measures that might allow Layton to tick off at least one item from his NDP budget wish list.

“If you actually look at people who need help in Canada, there are a group of older people in Canada who are not entitled to Canada Pension Plan benefits who could use some support from government and that’s something we’re looking at,” the finance minister said.

It’s not the first time he’s mentioned this inclination. On Feb. 1, after meeting with private-sector economists, Flaherty spoke of the need for “targeted measures” to help seniors, mostly women, who don’t qualify for CPP because they spent their working lives raising children and were never employed outside their homes. “And that’s something that, you know, all Canadians I’m sure would like us to address,” he said. “So, happy to work with the NDP about issues like that.”

However, Flaherty doesn’t want any budget move along these lines to be credited too directly to Layton, as though the Tories need to be proded to be compassionate. So he made a point today of linking this sort of targeted income-security policy for seniors to niche initiatives in previous Tory budgets, like the working income tax benefit and the creation of the Registered Disabilities Savings Plan.

Layton met with the Prime Minister on Feb. 18, and released a list of budget proposals that included measures to help poor seniors, such as an increased Guaranteed Income Supplement. But the NDP leader also asked for far less likely measures, such as removing the GST from home heating bills and doing something significant to make it easier for Canadians to find a family doctor.

The focus, it seems clear now, will be on seniors’ benefits, and whether whatever Flaherty delivers is enough for Layton.