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The Globe and Mail

Win or lose, Flaherty will stand by his budget

Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks during a media availability in Ottawa March 23, 2011.

Blair Gable/Reuters/Blair Gable/Reuters

The budget's not dead yet.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says Canadians will have the "ultimate" budget vote this spring if the opposition unites to bring down the Conservative government. Should the resulting election produce another Conservative government, Mr. Flaherty says he will bring back the very budget that is failing to win opposition support this week.

"The budget is on the table. I hope that some opposition members will support it," he said. "If they choose not to, then we all know what the alternative is - which is also the ultimate alternative, isn't it? It's the Canadians as voters to be the ultimate deciders."

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With other senior Conservative ministers having decided not to seek re-election - including Stockwell Day, Jay Hill, Jim Prentice and Chuck Strahl - Canadians can expect to see a lot of Mr. Flaherty should an election be called.

Not only is his budget shaping up as a central plank of the Conservative platform, Mr. Flaherty is also responsible for helping the party in the all-important Greater Toronto Area, whose ridings will make or break the Tory bid for a majority.

The minister wasted little time transitioning into campaign mode. Eschewing the traditional formal speech to business audiences that he normally delivers after a budget, Mr. Flaherty's first post-budget event was at a music shop in a Tory-held Ottawa riding where students played a few tunes and then sang O Canada.

The event, which aimed to highlight the budget's tax credit for children's art lessons, underscored the fact that the document was written to serve as the backbone of a Conservative campaign if needed.

Asked directly whether he would bring back the same budget if his government is re-elected, Mr. Flaherty said yes.

"We would propose to reintroduce the budget measures, assuming that there's an opportunity to do so in the future," he said.

For a man contemplating the uncertainties of an election campaign after an unprecedented string of successes that saw him pass five straight minority budgets, Mr. Flaherty was remarkably sanguine.

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"I'd love to [campaign]" he said Wednesday morning on CTV. "I'm looking forward to the flowers coming out of the ground and growing a new majority government for Canada."

After 10 years of Queen's Park politics and more than five years as federal Finance Minister, it's somewhat surprising that Mr. Flaherty, 61, is eager for more door knocking.

Having run and lost twice for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Mr. Flaherty has always been considered a potential candidate to replace current federal Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. But there are no signs he covets the job.

Rather, he has shown a stronger interest in international politics - particularly last year when he represented Canada around the world as chair of the G7 and G20. He is now dean of the G7 finance ministers and continues to take a keen interest in the ever-changing outlook for the global economic recovery.

Domestically, he has succeeded politically in winning budget support from all three opposition parties at various times. Yet his record leads many economists to conclude Mr. Flaherty allowed politics to trump policy. Critics say personal income tax reductions would have been far preferable to cutting the GST and peppering the tax code with numerous credits.

At the same time, Mr. Flaherty led the charge in pressuring the provinces to move with Ottawa in lowering corporate tax rates, a measure praised by business but opposed by the federal Liberals, who intend to make it an issue in the next campaign.

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William Robson, president of the C.D. Howe Institute, said Mr. Flaherty's overall record is positive and agrees the budget should essentially return if the Tories are re-elected. But he wishes the minister would resist the temptation to spend taxpayer dollars in a way that targets specific voters.

"When you read through this budget, the pork-barrelling is so explicit," he said.

In a December interview, Mr. Flaherty told The Globe and Mail he'd like to remain Finance Minister at least until the federal deficit is well on the way to being eliminated.

By coincidence of timing tied to the recession, the Finance portfolio has a far greater international dimension than Mr. Flaherty's predecessors would have experienced. As a result, it wouldn't be surprising if his post-politics career were tied to international finance.

Mr. Flaherty's long-time friend, Jaime Watt, says it is the international dimension that particularly motivates the minister to stay in politics.

"His time in office has provided him with an opportunity to continue in public service in lots of different ways," he said. "I think at some point in the future, he's a guy that is going to have more opportunities at the end of this process than he had at the start."

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