PM to ‘listen carefully’ to budget proposals

Stephen Harper is reacting coolly to opposition conditions for averting an election over the coming federal budget.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper is reacting coolly to opposition conditions for averting an election over the coming federal budget.

The prime minister said Thursday he’s prepared to “listen carefully” to opposition proposals for the budget, expected in late February or early March.

But he was skeptical that the government would ever be able to satisfy the opposition parties given what he described as their inconsistent budget priorities.

“I’m always willing to listen to the opposition parties but some days it’s kind of a moving target,” Harper said during a news conference in Toronto.

Harper pointed out that the Liberals initially supported the government’s multi-phase plan to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15 per cent by 2012.

Now, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff wants to roll back the 1.5-percentage-point reduction that kicked in on Jan. 1.

And he wants to cancel another 1.5-point cut scheduled for next year.

Scrapping corporate tax cuts is Ignatieff’s central condition for supporting the budget but Harper made it clear it won’t happen.

“Do we think we’re going to have employers create jobs by keeping our business taxes low or by hiking them back up again?” he asked rhetorically.

“I think it is very obvious to everybody who is looking at the relative success of the Canadian economy in a challenged global environment that the way to keep this economy growing is to keep taxes down for businesses and consumers.

“And that’s what this government is committed to doing.”

Harper needs the support of only one of the three opposition parties to avoid defeat of his minority government over the budget.

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois have so far laid down relatively modest conditions that should be more palatable to Harper than those advanced by the Liberals, who don’t appear interested in a deal in any event.

NDP Leader Jack Layton has adopted the most conciliatory tone, saying “with a little co-operation we can get it done.”

He’s proposed modest increases in Canada Pension Plan and Guaranteed Income Supplement benefits, elimination of the GST on home-heating fuel and return of the home-retrofit tax credit.

Harper accused Layton, too, of inconsistency. He noted that the NDP voted against the two-percentage-point reduction in the goods-and-services tax and the original home-retrofit program.

Harper did not address the Bloc’s demand that the budget include $2 billion in compensation for Quebec for harmonizing its provincial sales tax with the GST.

The Harper government has been negotiating such a deal with Quebec but insiders maintain it won’t be ready in time for the federal budget.

Should the government be defeated over its budget, Harper reiterated Thursday that he’ll campaign to get rid of the $2-per-vote subsidy for political parties — a move that could financially cripple rival parties that rely more heavily on the public subsidy than the Tories.

The last time Harper floated the idea, in the 2008 fall economic update, he triggered a political crisis that almost resulted in the replacement of his newly elected government by an opposition coalition.