Thursday’s federal budget will be thick – 500 pages, apparently, compared to the 375 pages of last year’s document. Those 500 pages will be about more than deficit reduction targets, cuts to program spending and proposed changes to Old Age Security.
They will also represent Jim Flaherty’s best, and perhaps last, shot at becoming known as Canada’s first great Conservative finance minister.
There have already been great, or at least famous, Liberal finance ministers. Walter Gordon championed economic nationalism in the 1960s. John Turner’s tenure in the 1970s helped establish his reputation as prime minister-in-waiting. Paul Martin in the 1990s slew the federal deficit.
But there has never been a Conservative finance minister who successfully reshaped the federal government in his ideological image. Jim Flaherty wants to be that minister, but until now, events have conspired against him.
During the early years of minority government, Mr. Flaherty spent like a social democrat, keeping the opposition parties at bay by continuing to expand the size and reach of government even as he cut sales and corporate taxes.
The sudden downturn of 2008 caught him flat-footed – denying, at first, that a crisis even existed, then scrambling to contain both the economic and political damage. It was his lowest moment. Eventually, the Harper government followed other Western nations in embracing a Keynesian approach to fighting the recession: economic stimulus through unbridled spending. There was hardly anything conservative about that.
Now, with a majority government in hand and a deficit that must be vanquished, Mr. Flaherty gets to do what he always wanted to do in the first place: shrink the government.
That means sending health and other social transfers to the provinces with no strings attached; slashing the federal public service and the plethora of programs it supports; thinning environmental restrictions on development; reducing pension entitlements in order to make them self-sustaining.
Above all: balancing the books, keeping taxes low, eliminating red tape; promoting growth.
Mr. Flaherty’s aim is to so entrench these principles in Ottawa that, when the Liberals or NDP or some combination thereof do eventually replace the Conservatives, the ethos of limited government at the federal level will be so axiomatic that there will be little they can to do to change it.
It is a goal that, if reached, will make this Finance Minister as revered by the Right as he is reviled by the Left.
This will be Mr. Flaherty’s seventh budget, which is a long run for a finance minister. Is it his last? That will depend on whether there is an agenda he considers still unfinished, or whether Thursday’s budget alone is enough to earn him the title of Flaherty the Great – at least among Conservative true believers.