Ignatieff’s Third Option?
Political watchers are waiting with baited breath to see whether Michael Ignatieff will acquiesce to Tuesdayâ€™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 toÂ appear strong, principled and effective, rather than revisiting Stephane Dionâ€™s legacy as Stephen Harperâ€™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 coalitionâ€™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 yesterdayâ€™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 governmentÂ 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.