Ignatieff’s Third Option?

Political watchers are waiting with baited breath to see whether Michael Ignatieff will acquiesce to Tuesday’s Conservative budget, to the applause of Bay Street Liberals, or whether he will defeat the budget and seize the opportunity to become Prime Minister of a progressive coalition government.

It strikes me that there is a third possibility: he might propose explicit amendments to the budget and make Liberal acceptance of the budget conditional upon Conservative acceptance of the amendments. This course of action would allow Igantieff to appear strong, principled and effective, rather than revisiting Stephane Dion’s legacy as Stephen Harper’s doormat. It would also prove that Ignatieff is a “grown-up” Liberal who would not give “socialists and separatists” a voice in government.

The Conservative budget will likely contain portions of the coalition’s policy accord and Ignatieff could presumably force further improvements. Should this outcome satisfy progressives?

I say no. As an astute letter-writer pointed out in yesterday’s Globe, “A vote of confidence in the federal budget is tantamount to a vote of confidence in the Harper government, not just on the provisions contained in the budget, as important as they may be.” The question is not only whether the right things can be inserted into the budget, but also whether we can trust Harper to carry them out.

Budget 2007 projected surpluses of $9.2 billion in 2006/07 and $3.3 billion in 2007/08. We ended up with surpluses of $13.8 billion and $9.6 billion. As a result, Canada sailed into the economic turbulence of 2008 on an anti-stimulus package worth almost two percent of GDP over the preceding two years.

The surplus discrepancies mainly resulted from higher-than-budgeted revenues, which reflect inaccurate budgeting more than untrustworthy execution. But the Conservatives also chose to spend less than budgeted in both fiscal years. Even more strikingly, the 2008 Economic Statement proposed to cut back spending promised in Budget 2008.

Whatever one thinks of these decisions, the point is that Harper could include whatever Ignatieff asks for in Budget 2009 and then remove it in the 2009 Economic Statement. Of course, the other parties could topple the Conservative government at that point. But by then, a full year after the 2008 election, the Governor General would be unlikely to give the coalition a kick at the can and likely to grant Harper another election.

Therefore, progressives should settle for nothing less than the other parties defeating the Conservative government and replacing it with a coalition government.

3 comments

  • Right on Erin. Enough of “playing political chicken.” Iggy needs to get off the pot. The rest is just playing political chess. If you have no confidence in this government than stand up.

  • The Governal General gave PM Harper time to borrow ideas from the Coalition, pad up the budget, and should this budget be not acceptable, prove to Canada just how unreasonable and difficult these separatist, socialistic people are to work with. Off with their heads!And time for tea again with the GG.

  • Your third option is interesting. But it would have to contain things specifically suggested by the BQ and the NDP and all opposition parties would have to vote for the amended version. Otherwise, those parties wouldn’t share in the credit/blame for the amended budget. I doubt they would (and shouldn’t – keep reading below).

    Deciding a budget is one thing – but how would the government execute an amended budget? Would they execute it faithfully? Or would they interpret the amended budget to suit themselves? Is there any way to guarantee a faithful execution?

    I think the 3rd option is way too risky for further consideration. I doubt the Liberals, BQ or NDP would propose amendments as you describe.

    I’m honestly confounded – pass or reject? I think it could go either way. I’m sure it won’t be the budget of dreams for any opposition party. But is it something tolerable? It would be difficult to reject something the people of Canada think is reasonable.

    Can the Conservatives introduce a reasonable budget? OK, that’s a loaded question. I’m sure they could… but will they? I’m not sold that they MUST be reasonable because of the coalition threat… they could try to force an election, to try for a majority. If they fail, they could wind up right back with another Conservative minority – in other words there might be not penalty for them introducing another toxic budget. So why not try?

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