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Politics Part Two of Harper’s fiscal plan appeals to niche-voter segments

This was a mop-up campaign, a pre-election opportunity for Stephen Harper's government to aim a string of small measures at key swing voters. It was an appeal to suburbs, to strivers, to seniors and to soldiers' families.

When Finance Minister Joe Oliver rose in the Commons to deliver his first budget Tuesday, it was really Part 2 of the pre-election budget. Last fall, his economic update and a series of government announcements had already poured out big money, and big-ticket items – billions for expanded child benefits and income-splitting tax cuts.

This time, there was less money, and the budget book was packed with measures, some tiny, targeted for niche-voter segments. The bigger things – a public transit fund, increased defence spending, small-business tax cuts and expanded tax-free savings accounts – were not huge, and most funds won't flow for years.

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Tuesday's budget also allowed the Conservatives to continue to drain away much of the projected surplus for coming years – making it harder for their NDP and Liberal opponents to make their own big-money election promises. Without surpluses, the opposition parties would have to pledge to undo Conservative programs to explain how they'd fund their own election promises.

Last fall's expansion of child-benefit and income-splitting tax breaks ate up most of the surpluses projected this year and next year. Now Tuesday's budget, with pledges to increase defence spending and create a public transit fund, would eat up much of the surplus projected for three or four years from now – so unless the NDP and Liberals pledge to cancel those measures, they'd have little room to fund their own campaign promises.

Mr. Oliver stressed that it took discipline to balance the budget. But he had to lop the "contingency" cushion by $2-billion to show a tiny $1.4-billion surplus. And that was after the big-ticket items in last fall's Part 1 of this pre-election budget.

It was that first part that really brought us Henry and Cathy, the fictional "typical" two-income, two-child family featured in Tuesday's budget book, including on the cover. Henry, earning $84,000, and Cathy, earning $36,000, will save $6,600 from Conservative measures.

That counts every break going back to Mr. Harper's 2006 GST cut, however, and only atypical families would collect it all – Henry and Cathy have two young kids, max out available tax credits for transit or kids' sports or arts, and get far more than most from income-splitting.

But the prime political market is clear: They're 30- to 50-year-old strivers, not poor but folks that have a decent income and also a feeling they need a break.

Tuesday's budget used smaller measures to target subsets of that group and other key voter segments.

The strivers will get help socking money away, with expanded tax-free savings accounts. Small-business tax cuts and several tiny business measures are sold as job-creation plans.

One major item, a public transit fund, is aimed at the suburbs, where gridlock and transit is top of mind, especially in dozens of swing ridings in Ontario's Golden Horseshoe. The money is promised for later, $250-million in 2017-18, rising to $1-billion in 2019-20. But it allows Mr. Harper to promise transit projects now.

Similarly, defence-spending increases start small, rising to $580-million in 2019-20, and $2-billion in a decade. But along with revamped veterans' benefits, it will help Conservatives shore up a key constituency, notably in Maritime military-base ridings, where Tory seats are threatened. And it helps Mr. Harper play up a tough-on-terrorism message and the mission against the Islamic State.

Importantly, there was also a string of small measures aimed at niche-voter groups from farm families to seniors.

Seniors will get relaxed rules on withdrawing from RRSPs. That will cost $140-million this year alone, but it's a big deal for upper-middle-income retirees.

And though students aren't Conservatives' typical target voter, there's a small expansion of student loans – not a big, costly move to broaden access for low-income students, but counting parents' incomes for less, so kids from affluent middle-class families can get more.

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Tuesday's thick budget book was packed with such tiny measures, a checklist for targeted voters. Part 1 of the pre-election budget, last fall's big-ticket benefits, will culminate in cheques sent this summer. Part 2, delivered Tuesday, is for chasing niche-voter groups through the summer.

Campbell Clark is the chief political writer in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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