Ibbitson

Ibbitson: A cautious Prime Minister picks his fights carefully

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper walk to the House of Commons to deliver the federal budget on Parliament Hill on March 21, 2013. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

Stephen Harper has chosen the path of potential confrontation with premiers, native chiefs and union leaders because he believes he has time to take risks and still win the next election.

He is gambling that his conservative constituency – the four-in-ten Canadians who expect their federal government to balance the books, cut taxes, keep the streets safe, and little else – will stay with him regardless of any tempests.

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If there are risks, then they are risks the Prime Minister is willing to take.

The budget is, in some ways, a cautious document. It seeks to protect the jobs of manufacturing workers in central Canada, where most of the population can still be found.

It tackles no entitlements – pensions or health care or any other core values that could rile centrist voters.

But those close to Mr. Harper say he has grown deeply frustrated with the chronic inability of provincial governments to match federally funded training programs to the needs of employers.

And so now Ottawa, not the provinces, will have the primary say in how labour training is delivered, through a new jobs grant that employers can access if they promise to match federal and provincial contributions.

The Parti Québécois government was howling within minutes of the news.

“It is a direct attack against Quebec and it is nothing less than economic sabotage,” protested Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau.

“I imagine that Mr. Harper succeeded in getting elected without getting a majority of seats in Quebec … and that he has decided to please his electoral base elsewhere in Canada,” he added.

There is truth in this. But Mr. Harper is gambling that an angry premier or two from east of the Ottawa River is hardly a mortal political threat.

If that weren’t enough, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty intends to press ahead with a national securities regulator, despite opposition from most provinces.

And the government is folding the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) back into Foreign Affairs. But the international aid community is hardly a core constituency.

And though Mr. Harper has in the past sought conciliation with first nations – offering the residential schools apology, signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, meeting repeatedly with native leaders and consulting them on the coming First Nations Education Act – the budget makes job training for natives on reserves contingent on them accepting a form of workfare.

“Rather than a hand up, we’re getting a hand across the face,” fumed Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

But to say most aboriginal Canadians don’t vote Conservative is more than an understatement.

As for public-service unions, the language is vague: “The Government will be examining disability and sick leave management, with a view to ensuring that public servants receive appropriate services that support a timely return to work.”

The meaning, to many, is clear: the Tories want to claw back bankable sick days, a concession that public-service unions want no part of. The chances of a strike by public servants next year, when most contracts expire, has increased measurably.

But Conservative governments in the past have taken on the unions and prevailed – not in spite of enraged public servants, but because of them.

There are risks. Demonstrations, strikes and confrontations can weary a population, who then vote for the party that promises peace.

But the Conservatives believe in the importance of retooling the work force, as new economic sectors expand, old ones contract, and boomers get ready to retire.

Too many seasonal workers are unable or unwilling to get the training they need for new jobs. Too many students graduate with degrees that encourage critical thinking in every area except how to land work. Too many first nations youth lack education and training to take advantage of natural-resource industries that are often right next door to the reserve. Immigration can only go so far in filling the gaps. The native-born work force needs to be retrained to fit an evolving economy. The Conservatives are willing to expend political capital to make that happen.

And besides, it’s only 2013. The government has two years to work through any blowback from those opposed to this budget.

By 2015, the deficit will have become a surplus, with money available to deliver tax-cut promises from the 2011 Conservative election platform.

And all that opposition? Just so much noise – at least as far as Tory voters are concerned.