Budget ’09: Fearful asymmetries

This budget is clearly designed to form the basis for a Conservative-Liberal coalition de facto

Andrew Coyne will be leading our budget coverage in the next edition. He felt more strongly about the budget than I did, as you will already have noticed. My own column will be kind of wistful. I do want to make a few points, not necessarily connected, in the meantime.

• Last spring I wrote a column arguing, tongue in cheek, that Liberals and Conservatives were already running a coalition government. Andrew wrote a column more recently, suggesting more seriously that they give such a thing a try. This budget is clearly designed to form the basis for a Conservative-Liberal coalition de facto. It’s surprising, though I suppose it shouldn’t be, how little attempt the Conservatives make to placate the Bloc or the NDP. In the latter case especially, that’s obviously a big change. The cozy little arrangement by which Jack Layton and Stephen Harper paid to Martin Liberalism, and which lasted well after the 2006 election, is over. This is the price Layton pays, perhaps gladly, for turning the NDP caucus into a machine for voting No to the Conservatives. But it points up an interesting feature of the political landscape since the last election and, at least, until the next: the Liberals are going to govern in coalition with somebody. It can be the Conservatives or it can be the NDP with Bloc support. But the Conservatives can’t govern alone and they can’t govern durably with the other opposition parties. And the NDP-Bloc can’t govern alone or with the Conservatives. That leaves the Liberals, and only them, with the freedom and the obligation to choose.

• The merits or otherwise of the Liberal-NDP-(Bloc) thing have already been debated endlessly, and only this is new: at the end of November one could argue (and Stéphane Dion did) that Harper was dragging his heels on fiscal stimulus and a serious government had to hurry in to provide some. Precisely the same argument, if it is valid, works against an opposition coalition now. Today there is a budget in hand, ready to implement. A new budget may or may not be better, but it would certainly be slower.

• This is aggressively not a green budget. We had a chance to elect environmentalists in October, apparently, and we decided not to. So the budget allocates $1 billion over five years for green infrastructure; $10 million for improved environmental reporting; and $351 million for nuclear energy, which is fine by me but which will strike many voters as not particularly environmentally friendly. This is penny-ante stuff compared to the scale of spending in lots of other chapters in the budget. And to speed up infrastructure spending, the government actually wants to weaken environmental-impact assessment, which confirms that nagging suspicion that these guys see a clean environment as a hassle. Incidentally, I would not want to take this budget to Washington to show the Obama administration I aim to be a serious partner on environment and energy issues, which means that for the next little while I wouldn’t want to be Jim Prentice.

• The Globe‘s Elizabeth Church and Daniel Leblanc have noticed a weird and disappointing mismatch in funding for the knowledge economy that also vexes the national association of research hospitals. There’s a lot of new money for university infrastructure and new labs. There is no new money for the granting councils that pay for university research. (In fact the granting councils’ budgets are cut, though the government argues this is because of administrative efficiencies that won’t affect the amount of program money they have available.) This mismatch isn’t new; it’s five years old. But this budget makes the problem markedly worse. It’s asinine to open labs if you will not pay for the work that goes on in labs. It suggests you like to cut ribbons but do not care what happens when the photo op is done.

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