Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Opposition Parties Do the Right Thing – Finally

It looks like the last Opposition Party which remained non-committal about its support of the Conservative government has made up its mind. Last night, Jack Layton announced very soon after the budget was delivered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that the NDP did not support the budget as written. The door to bring amendments forward was then slammed in his face by Flaherty, who decried in the spirit of Conservative co-operation, that either the budget gets adopted as-is, or it gets defeated.

Flaherty’s actions were expected; Layton’s, less so. Leading up to the budget, Layton and the NDP had been cagey. They said that they wanted to see the budget first, and never mind the ethical scandals the Conservatives have found themselves immersed in; nevermind that voting to support a budget would be voting to keep the most regressive government Canada has ever seen in power for likely another year. It seemed that if there was a chance for political gain for the NDP, Layton would take it. The question then became, could the Conservatives convince Layton to again set aside his Party’s principles and vote to support their regressive regime?

Some goodies were indeed thrown to the NDP, and to Canadians, in yesterday’s budget. First, some compliments where they are due: the continuation of the Eco-Energy Home Retrofit program, to the tune of $400 million, was one of Jack Layton’s targets for budgetary co-operation. This program has been effective with helping Canadians pay the costs of energy efficiency upgrades to their homes, which in the long run, benefit everyone through the reduced need for energy production. No doubt, whatever happens after the upcoming election, this program will remain funded, at least for another year (although it’s unfortunate that a grander vision for this program wasn’t being requested, nor offered: this program could have been extended to landlord situations where low-income tenants would benefit through rental reductions as result of energy savings; grants could have been offered to low-income working families who otherwise couldn’t afford to wait until tax time to see returns).

Indeed, as I indicated yesterday, there is something good for just about everybody in the budget. But having one or two goodies frankly isn’t good enough. The over-riding myopic vision of this budget is one of political opportunism. And that certainly includes the few bones thrown to the NDP by the governing Conservatives.

When it comes to budgets, surely our government could have done much better than this. How about having a realistic plan to address the $56 billion deficit in the face of a downturn in global economic activity, as a result of on-going crises in the Middle East and North Africa, along with rising oil and food prices? We’ve been relatively lucky here in Canada, finding ourselves somewhat insulated from the worst effects of the 2008 recession (at least in comparison to many other industrialized nations). However, as the economy is expected to sputter again as the demand for oil outstrips production, causing prices to soar and contributing to inflation and a loss of economic activity, wouldn’t Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have been better off to rely on tried and true methods of deficit fighting?

However, this is the same Jim Flaherty who, while Minister of Finance in Mike Harris’ provincial government, tried to hide deficits and keep spending secrets from other parliamentarians, so that when a new government came in and opened up the books, they were horrified to discover the extent of his deceit. I can’t help but wonder if this leopard has changed his spots, and whether there might be some very dark spending secrets still hiding in Flaherty’s books. Kevin Paige, parliament’s financial watchdog, seems to think that there is, and the Opposition parties have been trying to get clear answers from the Conservatives regarding the costs of new prisons and fighter jets, with no success. Michael Ignatieff likes to go on and on about how you can’t trust the Conservative’s numbers. He’s right to do so.

So, instead of keeping Harper’s promise made at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh back in 2009 to eliminate corporate welfare to some of the richest oil and gas companies in the world, Flaherty is largely relying on economic growth to get us out of the deficit mess we’re in. Flaherty’s tax cuts for big businesses come at a bit of a perverse time, as middle class and low-income Canadians are being asked to tighten their belts and do their parts to fight the deficit.

Some are saying that the current Conservative government is running a kleptocracy on behalf of their corporate benefactors. I wouldn’t go that far, but I can understand how it seems that the government is looting its own cupboards and trying to squeeze as much as they can from a shrinking middle class, so that the rich can enjoy paying fewer taxes. Don’t misunderstand me: the Conservatives, like their tea-party cousins south of the border, are doing a very good job of getting the middle class voters to support measures which actually run contrary to the interests of the middle classes. Small tax savings and promises of transparent, smaller government come wrapped up with big bows, but when unwrapped, it’s always the same old gift to the rich, who get richer, while the poor get poorer, and the middle class shrinks in the face of rising prices.

The NDP likes to say that they have the interests of hard working Canadians in mind, and it seems that after supporting the regressive Conservatives back in 2009, they realized that doing so again would mean abandoning their core supporters even further. This should have been a no-brainer to the NDP, and so it was disappointing to see Layton be cagey about the budget. With the NDP polling at around 14% nationally, and forecasted to lose seats in a spring election (including here in Northern Ontario), it might seem to the NDP that supporting the government makes more political sense right now. However, continued support of the Conservatives would have meant that the NDP would alienate its own supporters, who are stunningly upset about a Conservative government being allowed by the Opposition parties to run amok.

If the NDP had decided to vote to support the current Conservative government, in the face of an underwhelming and ill-planned budget, and against the backdrop of ethical scandals the size of Mount Everest, they would have successfully prevented an election from happening this spring, and likely delaying an election until 2012. The NDP might have thought that, given their lacklustre performance in the polls, they will benefit from this additional time to regroup and refocus.

But the slap in the face the NDP would have delivered to working families throughout Canada, who are being stung by a government bent on squeezing them for all their worth, would have been too much for future voters to ignore. In the past, the NDP has seemingly always put its own partisan interests in front of the interests of the voters it seeks to represent.

There appear to be rifts within the NDP caucus itself, over support of the budget. Thomas Mulcair, the NDP’s MP from Outrement, has been leading the charge to bring down the government. Perhaps this internal political reality might have also influenced Layton’s decision last night to help bring down the government. With a firebrand waiting in the wings to inspire and lead its disenchanted members, Layton really could ill-afford to lend his support again to the Conservatives.

The NDP is not a Party which always acts on its stated principles; indeed, they often say one thing and do another. In the past, the NDP has rationalized their support for an otherwise odious government by claiming that small, not-all-we-wanted-but-good-enough “wins” in a budget were somehow better than voting against a generally problematic document. It’s good to see that the NDP has this time decided that following their principles makes good political sense.

I have always admired the NDP’s principles, and some of their policy initiatives as well (where they were costed, and where they made sense). But the NDP’s emphasis on partisan game playing has always turned me off (their attacks on the Liberals carbon pricing plan in the 2008 federal election were particularly disgusting to me, given that the NDP’s own member-approved policies contained a very similar plan). This time, it looks like the NDP has decided to finally do the right thing. If only their principles consistently guided their decision-making.

The budget’s few small bright spots do not alter the general narrative of its overall weakness. The budget lacks any realistic plan to fight the deficit, and to start making the changes we need to make to prepare ourselves for the future. The budget does not help Canadians with preparing ourselves for a future where rising energy prices will impact so many aspects of our existence, from the way in which we get ourselves to work, to the nature of that work itself. Canada’s continued reliance on fossil fuels to power our economy is further evidence of an outdated economic model, which imperils our children’s economic health.

It’s good to see that the Opposition parties have finally come to the conclusion that they need to do something about the menace to Canada which is the Conservative government.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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