Most experts will tell you a perfect federal budget remains in the public eye for 24 hours, then is forgotten. Not this time.
As the governing Liberals continue to be dogged by the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. scandal, they need the March 19 budget to be remembered – a lot – over the next six months in the lead-up to election day.
The budget contains $23 billion in new spending, and targets three major demographics: millennials wanting to own their own homes, seniors and Indigenous Canadians.
The prospect of pharmacare continues to be dangled in front of us. And inconvenient issues, such as Canada’s competitiveness, will just have to wait.
Clearly, the Liberals hope the “happy days” budget will be enough to take voters’ attention away from SNC-Lavalin, and that voters really don’t care about the deficit and debt.
To succeed, the budget must remind voters why they voted for Justin Trudeau and his caucus in October 2015. They were able then to stake themselves out as defenders of the middle class, climate action, Indigenous reconciliation, global engagement and economic innovation – the party of hope, with Trudeau the shiny new pony.
With the shiny pony now spattered with mud, the Liberals need to get back to talking about their record and their vision for the future – and make the SNC-Lavalin scandal history.
On the day of the budget, the difficulty in achieving that goal became apparent.
The Conservatives drowned out Finance Minister Bill Morneau with catcalls and jeers when he tried to present his budget. Then, the Conservatives stormed out in a gesture of contempt. For added measure, the Conservatives tied up Parliament with a 31-hour filibuster.
Subsequently, however, the Conservatives had very little to say about the budget, even though there was no timeline indicating when federal deficits would end.
And two days later, former Treasury Board President Jane Philpott said in an interview with Maclean’s that she has more to tell about the whole affair and needs the prime minister to waive cabinet confidentiality to do so.
A week after the budget, public opinion polls indicated most Canadians liked what they saw. They were indeed indifferent to the deficit and debt, even if they were not yet prepared to forgive the Liberals for past transgressions.
Part of this may be because the Conservatives’ budget day tactics backfired. While spoiling the government’s announcement, the Conservatives also took themselves out of any debate about the budget’s weaknesses, such as a deficit that has become structural.
Drowning out the finance minister and storming out of the Commons does not make an Opposition party look like a government in waiting.
Usually, a big-spending budget leads to a bump in the polls for the government. That did not happen. But the budget may have slowed the hemorrhaging. The Liberals basically were where they were in the polls a week before the budget.
In addition, the polls have not all been good news for the Opposition. The Liberals are not trailing the Conservatives by much and remain competitive.
And while Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s party may be ahead in the polls, he can’t seem to get Canadians excited about him. In the long term, Scheer could become part of the SNC-Lavalin body count if his party decides he lacks the ability to leverage a scandal into power.
The challenge for the Liberals will be to show Canadians the government is able to put the budget to good use and show results, lest they be accused of just dangling goodies in a cynical effort to get voters to forget SNC-Lavalin.
We can expect lots of funding announcements over the next three months. Also expect something this government loves – consultations. There will be lots of them on measures in the budget to sustain interest.
Interestingly, the SNC-Lavalin narrative seems to be morphing into a power struggle between the prime minister and an über-ambitious rival instead of being manifested as an abuse of power. There may be enough doubt planted about MP Jody Wilson-Raybould’s motives for her to be seen as just another Ottawa backstabber. On the weekend after the budget, a Toronto Star columnist referred Wilson-Raybould as a “serial knifer.”
Leading up to the 2015 election, the Conservatives and New Democrats underestimated the third-place party’s ability to vault over them into power. The Liberals could surprise us again in October.