OTTAWA — The Harper government’s insistence that it wants no election did not prevent its most powerful minister from test-driving blistering campaign themes that painted a doomsday portrayal of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as a power-hungry politician whose policies will eliminate 400,000 jobs.
“Nothing would be safe,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told a large business audience Tuesday in a luncheon speech.
“No part of our economy would be spared. No taxpayer would avoid the hit.”
The attack before a Canadian Club audience, which lasted the better part of a 20-minutes, was received with stony silence by those in attendance.
Flaherty did receive polite applause at the conclusion of his remarks.
Few Liberals were left unscathed. Former prime minister Paul Martin’s government was called “weak, dithering and directionless” along with wasteful and corrupt.
But the prime target throughout was Ignatieff. Flaherty said the Liberal leader’s sole interest is “power, power, power.” To get it, he said Ignatieff would join with the NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois in a coalition.
Canadians will be hit by job-killing taxes should that ever happen, Flaherty said.
The minister’s office said later the 400,000 figure was based on economists’ expectations if the GST were hiked by two percentage points and the scheduled three percentage point cut to corporate taxes in the next few years does not go ahead.
The Liberals countered that it is the government that is introducing job-killing taxes, citing the expected increase in employment insurance premiums some business groups estimate could cost 170,000 jobs.
Tuesday’s speech may have been delivered by Flaherty, but Liberal finance critic Scott Brison said the unusual “vitriol” had all the earmarks of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“It’s beneath a finance minister,” he said. “Clearly this is not just a message from Jim Flaherty. Jim Flaherty does not say a peep without the prime minister’s office authorizing it.
“So very clearly, this is a prime minister itching for a confrontation,” Brison said.
Pointing to the tepid audience reaction, Brison said he doubted Canadians would be any more receptive to what he called “partisan vitriol.”
The sharp give-and-take reinforces expectations that the next election, when it comes, will be fought over the issue of who is best at managing Canada’s still fragile economic recovery.
Summer saw the Conservatives bogged down by opposition attacks over changes in the census, debate over the purchase of expensive new fighter jets in a time of restraint and the divisive battle over the long-gun registry. Conservative strategists have said the fall will see the government try to recapture the agenda by playing to an area that pollsters see as their strength: economic management.
Those strategists say they hope to frame the debate ahead of an election call in terms favourable to the Conservatives.
Flaherty said Canadians will face a clear choice — higher taxes from a Liberal-led coalition — or staying the course under the Conservatives, whom he maintained have made Canada an economic envy of the industrialized world.
To emphasize the point, the minister said Canadians should realize that there will be a majority government after the next vote — a majority Conservative or a majority Liberal-led coalition.
Flaherty took credit for Canada’s relatively strong performance during the recession and for the current recovery, which has recouped all the job losses suffered during the slump.
“An unnecessary election would put all of this at risk,” he warned.
“Not just our hard-won, world-leading status. But also our long-term growth and prosperity … the quality of life of our children and grandchildren.”
The Liberals counter that far from being prepared, the Harper government was late in reacting to the recession and was only pushed to act when the opposition parties threatened to bring down the government.
Ignatieff has also accused the Conservatives of skewed priorities in choosing to spend $16 billion on new fighter jets and $9 billion on building prisons at a time 1.5 million unemployed Canadians still need help.
And they continue to hammer the point that Harper inherited a string of multi-billion dollar fiscal surpluses from the Liberals and turned them into the largest deficits in history.
“How can you trust a spend-and-borrow government to dig us out of the hole they got us into?” Ignatieff asked in the House.
In the speech, Flaherty gave no hint about what he will do in the budget expected next spring, but said his priorities were tax rates, the deficit and jobs.
Ignatieff has called for a setting aside of scheduled future tax cuts for business so the money can be used to support Canada’s social programs, but has said he will not introduce a carbon tax nor will he call for a GST hike.