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Politics Scheer ditches balanced-budget promise because it’s the political cost that counts now

Fiscal responsibility is supposed to be the cornerstone of Conservative policies, but Andrew Scheer was counting the political cost when he ditched his pledge to balance the budget within two years of taking office.

It’s a stunning step for a Conservative leader. His party has needled Justin Trudeau’s Liberals for years for failing to balance the budget, and now Mr. Scheer is saying that balance comes later – not even in a first Tory term in office.

But he was always going to come to this crossroads.

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If he didn’t dump that balanced-budget pledge, he wouldn’t have an election platform this fall – at least not one with promises of tax cuts or spending measures. In the meantime, the Liberals would paint him as an austerity-obsessed budget-cutter who would slash the programs that are important to Canadians.

The Liberals were already firing shots that cast Mr. Scheer as a budget-slasher. After the Conservative Leader gave a relatively vague speech about his economic “vision” in Toronto on May 16, Finance Minister Bill Morneau launched a preplanned attack that asserted Mr. Scheer’s fiscal agenda would require $55-billion in cumulative budget cuts over five years.

One could quibble with Mr. Morneau’s figure, based partly on the Liberals’ own estimates of the cost of promises Mr. Scheer has already made.

But the big problem for the Conservatives was that the thrust of the argument was undeniable: If Mr. Scheer was going to balance the budget in two years, he would have to make deep cuts. Given the deficits projected in Mr. Morneau’s last budget, Mr. Scheer would have to cut tens of billions in spending before he paid for any of his own promises; he’d have to take $15-billion out of annual spending by his second budget and roughly $40-billion in the course of a four-year term.

So when he delivered his economic vision speech for a second time last Friday, in Vancouver, he added a new section: Instead of balancing the budget in two years (if elected), he would do it in five.

Sure, he could blame it on the Liberals’ “reckless” deficits – which he did. But it was a step back from the fiscal discipline his party has preached. Projecting a balanced budget in five years is the political equivalent of putting balanced budgets on the back burner. It involves a gamble that voters who really care about balanced budgets are going to vote Conservative anyway. But the other political options were bad, too.

Sean Speer, a former adviser in Stephen Harper’s PMO who is now a senior fellow in public policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, said the deficits meant Mr. Scheer faced a “trilemma” – a tough choice the modern Conservatives hadn’t faced when seeking to gain power.

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He said that Conservatives typically want to put together three things when they put a fiscal policy in their election platform: balanced budgets to fit the fiscal-responsibility brand, avoiding projections of deep budget cuts that might scare voters, and making their own election promises of tax cuts or new spending.

That last one appears to be a political necessity, judging by recent campaigns. If you head into an election campaign without room to pay for promises that voters believe will affect their lives, it is hard to present a forward-looking agenda – and that’s what grabs voters’ attention.

Back in 2006, when Mr. Harper was an opposition leader, he didn’t have to choose, Mr. Speer said. The Liberal government had a surplus. Mr. Harper promised to balance the budget and cut the GST. But by the 2015 election, with tight public finances, he had to choose: His election campaign didn’t include a lot of eye-catching promises to announce each day, and Mr. Trudeau’s did.

Now, the Liberals’ deficits have made the choice even tougher. To balance the budget quickly, Mr. Scheer would have to slash. The Liberals knew that when Mr. Morneau drafted his March budget: They re-upped their spending promises in part to provide a stark contrast with a Conservative Leader who would cut.

Mr. Scheer has made his choice. Put off the two-year balanced-budget pledge he made when he was trying to win the support of Conservative Party members. He’s going after swing voters now. He doesn’t want to scare them with cuts. And he wants to be able to make election promises this fall.

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