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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds his budget speech in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds his budget speech in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

One adroit budget, one more Conservative government Add to ...

With the NDP's immediate thumbs down on the Harper government's budget, Canada will face yet another election. The only questions are when the government will fall, and when the election will be held.

Whatever happens in the campaign, the government presented a reasonable, moderate budget that contained some sensible spending increases, avoided additional and unnecessary tax reductions, and promised a credible, if somewhat leisurely, march toward a balanced budget. The budget won't survive the House of Commons, but it will carry the Conservatives through an election they'll almost certainly win.

Defeated on a budget motion, defeated on a contempt-of-Parliament motion - it doesn't matter. Voters quickly forget why an election is called and set about making their choice. Moreover, very few voters pay attention to the goings-on under the Peace Tower.

Clearly, the government didn't meet the NDP's four budget demands, but no one expected it would. The New Democrats apparently decided, despite the uncertain health of their leader, Jack Layton, not to accept a third of a loaf the Conservatives offered that, however meagre, would still have been better than the crumbs of losing seats in an election, an entirely possible fate for the party.

The NDP, by voting for the budget, also could have saved the Liberals from themselves, since the Liberals have cocooned themselves in the illusion that only an election will improve their prospects. This will be Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's first campaign and, if his party loses badly, probably his last. He has to hope, perhaps against hope, that he can so surmount low expectations and a negative public image that, by campaign's end, he'll be a credible prime minister.

The Conservatives aren't unhappy. They have a healthy lead in the polls and an excellent campaign organization, and have spent the past few months unleashing TV ads and spending announcements in just about every corner of Canada. They would have to make some huge blunders in the campaign to lose power. If Stephen Harper can't win a majority with these advantages, he likely never will.

If the Conservatives do things well, they just might squeeze out that majority for which they've been striving since arriving in office. They'll govern with a majority for four years, or run a minority government for three years as if they had a majority. Either way, they'll be content.

To that end, the budget was politically adroit. It had small, enticing measures, its ambition curtailed by the post-recession need for at least some restraint: little tax credits here, spending dollops there, targeted at groups the Conservatives want to attract, none onerous in its cost or egregious in its misdirection. It was a budget for an election if necessary but one not necessarily designed to provoke an election.

As Canadians have come to understand, the Harper government is more conservative fiscally in rhetoric than in reality. It has preferred to shower money around the country, a practice that began on its arrival in office and accelerated during the recession. The budget continued that tradition, sprinkling money on dozens of programs and institutions. And several programs got substantial new money, such as those for very low-income seniors and for energy retrofitting of homes.

Thankfully, the government avoided huge tax reductions of the kind that blew holes in the country's fiscal position before the recession. And it stopped another stupidity: refusing to build a cushion of fiscal prudence into the budget, as former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin did and as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is now belatedly doing.

All the country's really big decisions - how to finance health care, how to spur productivity, how to internationalize itself, how to curb its appetite for consuming and producing dirty fuels and contribute to reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions, how to create more social justice - were touched on only lightly or skirted entirely.

It's unlikely, alas, that many, if any, of these issues will be debated in a campaign full of negative ads and gossamer promises.

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