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Flaherty’s sleight of hand will fool few

By reaching under the couch cushions for loose change and unwrapping some rolled-up nickels, Jim Flaherty gave the impression of at least a little action in his budget tabled on Tuesday.

It may have looked like the finance minister was moving to help consumers, jobless youth and the marginalized in this country, but his effort is sprinkled with some of the smallest numbers ever published in a budget book.

This was not a budget meant to shift Canadians’ focus off the slopes and ice rinks of Sochi. But Flaherty has earned gold for illusion.

He has tossed some spare change at programs that look popular, helping to open the job market to the young, those with physical disabilities and autism.

It appears as if the government is moving on a consumer agenda, stealing an NDP initiative here, going after big bad telecommunications companies and price gougers there, looking out for the beleaguered taxpayer here, muscling in on the crowded quest to court the middle class there.

Under this government, budgets have become almost exclusively political documents with the real meat being served up in later omnibus bills and the annual ritual of staring into budget books in a sterile conference centre is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

As political documents go, it is a credible effort because it gives the Conservatives the right to at least claim that they are dealing with weaknesses in the economy and consumer irritants, no matter how flimsy those claims may be.

But they will be happy to be known simply as responsible. No spending on shiny objects; virtually no spending at all.

Flaherty, in his speech to the Commons, reached back to quote Canada’s first finance minister, John Rose, Sir John A. Macdonald and Thomas D’Arcy McGee to warn against the evils of wanton spending.

Even next year, when he will be in the black, Flaherty cautioned “a return to surplus is not a licence to spend recklessly.”

Call this effort boring and he thanks you for the compliment.

The question for the Conservatives is whether their well-polished reputation as the calm stewards of the economy will survive another year of living responsibly during an era of weak, and volatile, job creation.

Critics who have accused this government of being obsessively prudent in protecting its election year surplus will find nothing here to change that view. But the Conservative core supporters will likely applaud this effort in government freezing and slashing.

Even the most substantive move by this government is not quite what it seems.

The $1.9-billion proposed overhaul of First Nations education announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper is contingent on this government being re-elected.

The consumer moves are also largely illusory and cost the government next to nothing.

By spending $305 million over five years, Flaherty is expanding high-speed broadband to nearly 100 per cent of the country, but the number affected is slight.

He is promising legislation to narrow the gap between Canada and U.S. retail prices, but the language is loaded with caveats and short on details, coming as the Canadian dollar is in decline.

He will move to cap wholesale domestic wireless roaming rates in his never-ending, but so far fruitless, attempt to spark competition in the market.

While short on bling, the Conservatives did provide some bang.

Tuesday was a bad day for three demonized constituencies: smokers, bad senators and public servants.

There will be legislation to take away the right of suspended senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin to build pensionable service while on the sidelines.

If you are a public servant still working, the government has targeted your disability and sick benefits. If you are retired, they will make you pay more for your health plan.

The price of puffing will go up.

But to call this a nickel-and-dime effort was to inflate its effect.

Flaherty in 2014 was the equivalent of the guy who finds a $20 bill in the pocket of a suit jacket he hasn’t worn for a year. That doesn’t go very far, especially if you decide to save some of it for next year.

If the national conversation turns back to hockey rinks and moguls by the end of the day, this is a happy government.

But as those who root for doomed sports franchises and government spending like to say, just wait until next year.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.



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