May election looms

OTTAWA — It’s a federal budget that looks and reads like an election-campaign platform, and that’s what it appears destined to become within days.

NDP leader Jack Layton

NDP leader Jack Layton

OTTAWA — It’s a federal budget that looks and reads like an election-campaign platform, and that’s what it appears destined to become within days.

All three opposition parties immediately rejected Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s new spending blueprint Tuesday, setting the country on course for an early May election — the fourth in seven years.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government is almost certain to fall this week, either on a budget vote Thursday or a Liberal non-confidence motion Friday on the government’s alleged ethical shortcomings.

The Tories could yet save themselves — theoretically — with a dramatic rewrite of the budget. But Flaherty said there is “no chance” of that happening.

NDP Leader Jack Layton sealed the government’s fate when he rejected a budget that had appeared tailored to tempt his support.

The highly politicized document is packed with populist, boutique programs. They include partial nods to NDP demands, such as an extended home energy retrofit program, improved pensions for the very poorest seniors, and measures to boost access to health care professionals.

But the spending measures are extremely modest and tightly targeted.

“We’re seeing the proliferation of these small credits,” said Bruce Flexman of the Chartered Accountants of Canada. “They’ve obviously trying to sprinkle these amounts, (but) there’s not much money there.”

Layton ended the suspense moments after Flaherty finished his budget speech in the House of Commons.

“Mr. Harper had an opportunity to address the needs of hard-working, middle-class Canadians and families and he missed that opportunity,” the NDP leader told a throng of reporters.

“He just doesn’t get it.”

Conservatives will counter by pointing to a better-than-projected federal deficit figure of $29.6 billion for the coming fiscal year and a forecast of balanced books by 2015-16.

“Leadership is about finding a balance between needs,” Flaherty told the House of Commons in his budget speech.

His blueprint includes a caregiver tax credit worth up to $300 a year, stealing a Liberal pledge. It also offers a tiny tax break for tots taking art classes, credits for volunteer firemen, and accelerated capital cost writedowns that had been championed by three New Democrat MPs in the Hamilton area.

John Baird, the Conservative House leader, suggested his government did more than its share to accommodate opposition demands.

“I think we had hundreds of consultations across the country, we met with all the opposition parties and heard their concerns,” he said. “I think we responded. This is not ’Let’s Make a Deal.”’

Flaherty emerged from the House to say he expects opposition MPs, should they defeat the government, “to go back home and explain to their constituents why they voted against the caregiver benefit, why they voted against the benefit for the poorest seniors we have in this country.”

It’s all election grist now.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the budget neglects to include the ballooning and as-yet unconfirmed cost of the Tory criminal justice agenda, nor does it lay out the true multibillion-dollar costs of buying 65 new stealth fighter jets.

“We find that the priorities of this government are not the priorities of ordinary Canadians,” he said.

He noted the government spent more hosting last year’s weekend-long G8 and G20 summits than it committed to “helping seniors out of poverty in a whole year.”

And he said the missing prison and jet spending leaves a “black hole in the middle of the budget.”

The Liberals would prefer the government to fall on an opposition day motion linked to a series of alleged Conservative ethical lapses. But the timing and trigger of the government’s defeat remains unclear.

The Tories are expected to use procedural machinations to ensure they fall over the budget — before opposition parties can get to a motion formally citing the government for contempt of Parliament and before Liberals get a chance to introduce a non-confidence motion. That suggests the government will fall Thursday on a Bloc Quebecois sub-amendment to the Liberals’ main budget amendment.

Under that scenario, Harper would likely visit the Governor General on Friday morning to sound the election campaign’s formal starting gun.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said he has no confidence in the Conservative government. He dismissed the budget as “unacceptable” because it did not include $2.2 billion for Quebec to reimburse the province for harmonizing its sales tax with Ottawa in the early 1990s.

Negotiations between Quebec City and Ottawa over the sales tax payout have been going on for months. Flaherty denied they could come to fruition during the looming election campaign.

The budget appears destined to become a parliamentary curiosity, but one that will live on for a least a few more weeks. It’s signature achievement may be in rebranding the Harper government’s two-year-old, recession-fighting Economic Action Plan as a continuing initiative.

The plan, introduced in the 2009 budget, was explicitly supposed to expire this March 31, but was extended last fall to permit infrastructure projects to wrap up by October this year.

Flaherty’s doomed 2011-12 budget, however, is subtitled “The Next Phase of Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” and the phrase is peppered throughout the documents. Expect to hear it on the election trail.

Even the photos on the budget cover are of the same actors who appear in the taxpayer-funded Economic Action Plan ads that have been blanketing the airwaves for the last two months.

— With files from Joan Bryden