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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks in Montreal on Sunday May 10, 2009. (Bernard Brault)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks in Montreal on Sunday May 10, 2009. (Bernard Brault)

Adam Radwanski

What Liberals won't run on Add to ...

The Liberals had great fun on Wednesday calling for Jim Flaherty's head. Sure, there's no way he'll be fired any time soon. But how better to generate headlines, now that everyone's getting a little tired of your empty threats to go to an election over a relatively minor dispute about employment insurance?

Here's a thought: How about being more creative, and actually putting forward a competing vision for the country's economic management.

Granted, it's a little tricky. The Liberals more or less called for the recession-fighting approach the Conservatives adopted in January's federal budget, and endorsed it with their votes. But then, memories are short. And there may be an opening for an enterprising opposition party - or the government, for that matter, though that's even more improbable - to call for a change in course.

Back in January, there was considerable grumbling - including in these parts - that the budget had focused too heavily on short-term stimulus measures without enough regard for maximizing long-term impact. Considering the likelihood that most of that money wouldn't be spent quickly enough to have an impact before 2010, the sprinkling of cash in all directions seemed a pointless waste of funds that could have been used to invest in a few key areas that would make Canada more competitive in the post-recession world.

This month, it's emerged that the funds are getting out the door even more slowly than expected. No matter how the Conservatives dress up next month's progress report, it's going to make it even more obvious that most of the infrastructure dollars won't actually be invested until the economy has at least partly rebounded.

To dwell on this seems, on the surface, to be playing Monday morning quarterback. The great rush to stimulus spending was an all-party affair, with the government following a global trend and much of the media cheering it on. Now we're stuck with those commitments, so we might as well make the best of it and enjoy our new bridges and hockey arenas.

At a certain point, though, someone might want to ask why exactly we're stuck with it.

We're talking about money that - because it's hung up in the bureauracy, or caught in intergovernmental wrangling, or has simply found its way to the backburner - hasn't yet been spent. That should, at least in theory, offer the chance for a bit of a do-over, with greater discipline and focus applied to the funds' allocation.

Not to say that all or even most of the pending projects should be scrapped. Money for skills training surely serves Canada's long-term interests. So does promoting the development of green technology. Or improving public transit. Or any number of other things that the government unveiled four months ago.

But if a new government, or the current one, were to review all planned expenditures announced in that budget to determine whether they're an efficient use of dollars toward specific long-term goals, you can bet it would find several billion in savings. That money - combined, say, with the $3-billion not being allocated next year for the ridiculous one-off home renovation tax credit - could then be directed in 2010-11 and beyond toward focused investments in research, innovation, and other means of modernizing the economy and enhancing productivity.

(An alternative...er...alternative, if a party were so inclined, would be to pledge to direct any savings toward the oversized deficit Flaherty is being roasted for. But the relative benefit would be considerably lower, since the shortfall will ultimately have to be eliminated mostly through an increase in revenues regardless.)

The politics of cancelling planned infrastructure projects, even the most useless ones, are not easy. It could cost a party a handful of ridings, at least. But a coherent argument could be made that, in some cases, the time for launching those projects had passed. And juxtaposed against short-term spending that won't even be spent until that short term is over, a demonstrable ability to look beyond the end of the recession toward a more optimistic future might make sacrificing a few seats worthwhile.

Not that the Liberals, or any other party, are likely to go that route. It requires a lot less energy and involves a lot less risk to make grand declarations about minor differences of opinion. But until they finally do start laying out their platform, one can always dream.

 

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