It's the NDP platform on a Liberal budget.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau might as well have cherry-picked rubrics from the New Democrats' policy book, changed the wording and squeezed them into the few billions that could be spent without blowing up last year's deficit projections.
In fact, that's pretty much what he did.
The budget included a newly named Canada Workers Benefit, built out of an existing refundable tax credit, that looked a lot like the Working Canadians Guarantee in Jagmeet Singh's NDP leadership campaign. There was a promise of pay-equity legislation and new parental leave aimed at achieving gender equity. There was a ramp-up in feminist foreign aid and $1-billion a year for Indigenous services, notably family services. There was rhetoric about cracking down on tax evasion and reforming pension protections after Sears Canada employees were hit in a bankruptcy – two NDP talking points.
And then Mr. Morneau signalled that the Liberals will eventually steal an item the NDP was expected to put in their 2019 election platform – a national pharmacare plan – by announcing an advisory council to propose specifics.
The Finance Minister touched a lot of NDP themes without earmarking massive sums.
This was social-justice spending on a Liberal shoestring. That is, it wasn't an austerity budget, because it increased spending, but it kept the spending within constraints.
It said a lot about the Liberals' political priorities. They believe their fight in next year's election is on the left and relies on promising equity and equality to keep the NDP from making inroads – fitting for a government led by Justin Trudeau, son of a prime minister who promised a "Just Society." They think Canadians don't care about eliminating the deficit, as long as they're reassured it's under control.
There was one major aspect of Mr. Morneau's budget that wasn't generic progressive politics and more big-L Liberal branding: Mr. Morneau earmarked significant sums – rising to more than $1-billion in five years – for scientific research and reorganized industrial "innovation" programs.
Some of that makes good policy sense, but the budget, titled "Equality + Growth", made the Liberal economic plan seem a simplistic equation: You fund science and technology to boost economic growth and then spend the proceeds on equity.
In fact, Mr. Morneau stuck with pretty much the same deficit projections that he set in last fall's economic update. Since then, the Finance Department has revised its estimates to project that the deficits over the next five years will actually be $3-billion or $4-billion smaller than was projected last fall, so Mr. Morneau is increasing spending by the same amount. A penny saved is a penny spent.
It's a good bet that the first step in making this budget was figuring out how much Mr. Morneau had to spend without making people talk about the deficit.
The Finance Minister then used a variety of crafty metods to stretch the money. The Canada Workers Benefit was mostly funded by sums Mr. Morneau announced last fall. The five weeks of extra parental leave, which must be taken by a second parent, is financed from employment insurance funds, so it doesn't have an impact on the deficit.
In the end, the budget that spent billions of dollars touched a variety of popular progressive themes and still didn't change deficit projections. Inside Mr. Trudeau's government, that's probably the definition of budget success.
Some of the touted measures, like those aimed at closing the gender gap, are too small to have a big impact. The five weeks of use-it-or-lose-it parental leave, aimed at fathers, will encourage a lot of men to take some parental leave but not necessarily share it equitably with mothers, who take more than 40 weeks on average.
But politically, it's a good bet that the Liberals will still get credit from many voters, notably progressive female voters, who will judge them on their motivations; even if they don't believe it will radically change the gender gap, many will see it as a good start.
A lot of this budget is about displaying the Liberals' progressive intentions. The Conservatives can complain they should have cut the deficit or taxes, but Mr. Morneau didn't give them any new targets, and on Tuesday he was crowing that the economy is humming along. The NDP can complain its measures don't go far enough, but Mr. Morneau just stole a lot of their campaign rhetoric – and he's coming back for pharmacare next year. It was a former corporate CEO delivering his version of an Orange Wave budget – and 20 months from voting day, the first of two pre-election budgets.