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The Conservatives have employed a series of fictions to pretend the infrastructure cuts – the single largest budget-balancing measure in the Conservative platform – aren’t really cuts

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

There could hardly be a bigger contrast. Andrew Scheer is promising to slash infrastructure spending.

That’s the very thing that was so central to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s political brand in 2015 – the promise to get the economy going with projects to build roads, bridges, waterworks and transit.

Now the Conservative Leader is effectively telling Canadians it’s not worth it. He would slash those infrastructure budgets – cutting a total of $18-billion from them over the course of five years.

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Not only that, in order to deliver tax cuts and balance the budget he would cut billions from other parts of government spending. In fact, Mr. Scheer’s platform projects a cut of more than 7 per cent to the federal government’s direct program expenses – the budgets of government departments – the biggest since the mid-1990s when then-finance minister Paul Martin swung the axe to tame spiralling deficits.

The Conservatives had to make choices. Mr. Scheer, alone among major party leaders, put forth a plan to balance the budget in five years. He promised tax cuts, too.

But Mr. Scheer had also promised not to cut transfer payments to provinces for health care and social services, or for the gas tax, or to cut the Canada Child Benefit, and so on. There weren’t many other ways to cut large sums. So Mr. Scheer chose infrastructure.

That’s a bold decision. But Mr. Scheer didn’t want to be bold about it. The Conservatives employed a series of fictions to pretend the infrastructure cuts – the single largest budget-balancing measure in the Conservative platform – aren’t really cuts.

The first was claiming the same money would be spent, just later. In this case, that the $18-billion cut over the next five years would actually be spent after 2030. But that’s a faraway never-never land for political promises, and even if it came true, infrastructure spending would be reduced over the next decade. It’s a cut.

The second was to argue cutting the budget didn’t make much difference because the Liberal government failed to spend all its annual infrastructure budgets, anyway. And it is true that in the first two years of the expanded Liberal infrastructure program, Ottawa spent roughly 40 per cent less than budgeted. But that doesn’t mean the Conservatives are only planning to cut budgets that weren’t going to be spent anyway. The Parliamentary Budget Office estimated how much would actually be spent – and the Conservatives cut $18-billion from that.

It is hard to ramp up infrastructure spending quickly, to make deals with provinces and municipalities, to pick projects, but the PBO forecasts that the shortfalls would shrink over time. Still, if the problem was just Liberal-government incompetence, Mr. Scheer could promise to fix that. He chose to cut.

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There aren’t many choices that would make a clearer contrast with Mr. Trudeau’s brand. And it’s a gamble, too. Even Conservatives tend to favour infrastructure spending, because it brings durable, tangible benefits. But Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives got something out of the political trade-off: Their proposal to reduce the lowest income-tax rate would cost $6-billion in 2024-25, and cutting infrastructure by $6.7-billion that year would balance it out.

The Conservative platform proposes other trims, including cuts to foreign aid and industrial subsidies, cancelling job-training credits, and freezing the size of the public service work force. And Mr. Scheer claims he can cut the non-salary operating expenses of the government by 6 per cent over five years with administrative measures such as trimming travel budgets, cutting the size of civil servants’ cubicles, cutting consultants and so on. Maybe. But no federal government in recent decades has cut operating expenses that deeply without cutting people or programs.

Of course, the Liberals will warn, as they already have, that Mr. Scheer will cut. But the Conservative Leader can argue, rightly, that the Liberals have no plan to balance the budget. The NDP, which also released its platform costing Friday, outdid the Liberals for spending and then dreamed up billions in new taxes to pay for it. The Greens did the same thing as the NDP, but with bigger numbers.

Now, Mr. Scheer is doing something very different. He won’t say it, but the numbers do. To map a path to a balanced budget he decided to propose cuts, and cuts to infrastructure. That’s a political gamble with 10 days to go to an election. And it is a stark contrast to Mr. Trudeau.

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