In Ottawa, a balanced budget is the ultimate brag on a resume

Tories are fixated on balancing the federal books. Liberals say they do it better. Nobody cares about ideas anymore.

A covered pedestrian walkway over Mount Pleasant Road stood between me and this afternoon’s hot dog. Office wanderers are treated to the adult contemporary tones of CHFI 98.1 for that 30-second walk between buildings, which is precisely the length of a political ad. My timing on the hot-dog run couldn’t have been better; a pretend voter was complaining to all of us, in mock conversation, about Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s contention that “budgets balance themselves.” This is one of every Conservative’s favourite knocks against Trudeau, who may or may not regret suggesting that, with enough economic growth, budgets balance themselves (even if there’s truth to the claim).

Balanced-budget politics offer possibly the nerdiest pissing contests this side of a structural deficit. Nobody is better at arguing about their own black ink than Ralph Goodale, the last finance minister who called himself a Liberal, and Pierre Poilievre, the front bench’s reliably ruthless employment minister. Poilievre happily dismissed Trudeau’s proposed middle-class tax cut as, instead, a tax hike that’ll actually bleed government coffers of $2 billion. To Goodale, he asked simply: “Will the Liberal member stand up now and explain how he’s going to fill that financial hole?”

That masterful trolling riled Goodale, who did stand up. “I’m the one member of this House who actually balanced a budget,” he reminded Poilievre, to a raucous ovation from the caucus surrounding him. The accuracy of that claim relies on the absence of Finance Minister Joe Oliver, the author of the recently balanced Budget 2015, from the chamber. On this day, Oliver’s seat remained empty. So Goodale got to crow about his mad budget skillz in 2005.

The red team’s deputy leader went on, for effect. “These guys inherited 10 Liberal balanced budgets and created $150 billion in new Conservative debt,” he said, barking out billion, wagging a finger, barely audible as his team cheered him on. “This government is a fiscal fraud.”

Interminable arguments about who’s best at killing deficits and growing surpluses make for wonderful parliamentary theatre. “Who’s most fiscally responsible? Well-sir, my record speaks for itself!” “Nay, you fool, you balanced the budget on the backs of the rich, the poor, and the hard-working middle class!” “Harumph!” “Grrr!” Probably, much as the people who will soon cast votes hope for a government that is ledger-literate to rule the day, they may well care more about so many other things.

But don’t let those measly priorities get in the way of a good verbal joust. Keep on pissin’, gents.

The context

Look at Canada, where no government appears safe, no party governs permanently, and no premier is too popular to be trounced once the people get mad. Jim Prentice learned painfully that no right-leaning party, even if it’s won a dozen elections in a row, can take its voters for granted. The nine years since Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved into 24 Sussex have witnessed six provinces change governments, sometimes twice, and the other four elect new premiers under the same party banner. No conservative leader has outlasted Harper. Only one has come close: Brad Wall of Swift Current, the Crown Prince of Canada’s conservatives.

Wall, a lifelong resident of his hometown, beat the long-governing Saskatchewan New Democrats in 2007. He’s watched premiers fall all around him, and even the re-elected among them wallow in unpopularity he’s never known. It’s almost a joke every time Angus Reid publishes its latest approval ratings for the country’s premiers: everybody looks for second place because Wall, who typically earns a thumbs-up from at least two-thirds of his province, is routinely on top. He reached as high as 71 per cent approval a month after his re-election in 2011, and has dropped a mere seven points since. Wall jokingly blames the feds for high winds, applauds new on-reserve childcare spaces, boasts about record exports, and shows off Saskatchewan’s number of homegrown NHL players per capita. That’s just the last 48 hours. Alberta’s rejection of a conservative dynasty only amplifies Wall’s popularity.

Good times for Wall and a favourable electoral map have paved the way for years of near-sweeps for federal Conservatives in Saskatchewan. The stubborn Ralph Goodale, a Liberal who’s toiled at the provincial and federal level since 1974, remains the only spot of red in a sea of blue. New Democrats used to win federal seats regularly in the province, but a string of orange shutouts, even as Jack Layton’s team won official opposition in 2011, has bolstered Tory confidence and helped enshrine the prairie province as a place where right bests left.

Then again, nothing lasts forever. The next federal contest will see new urban ridings in Saskatoon and Regina. The old ridings, which meshed the biggest cities with outlying rural lands that tilted Tory, are no more. The NDP wants to gobble up those new seats but badly. Today, Thomas Mulcair will continue to make his case that Harper, the only Conservative who’s lasted longer than the nearly untouchable Wall, should go the same way as Prentice, a fallen star who governed and campaigned himself out of a job.