A federal budget of pittances - Macleans.ca

A federal budget of pittances

Paul Wells explains how the budget extends Harper’s advantage

Chris Wattie/Reuters
Chris Wattie/Reuters

It’s the solutions to problems you didn’t know we have that are most telling. “Many students, especially those who live in rural and suburban communities, often require a vehicle for travel,” the 2014 federal budget document says. “Public transit is not an option for them.” So the Harper government will no longer consider the value of students’ cars when assessing their eligibility for Canada Student Loans. About 19,000 student commuters will qualify for larger loans. The cost to the federal purse will be $7.8 million a year.

It’s a pittance, but this was a budget of pittances, and they add up.

“Some people will say this budget is boring,” Jim Flaherty told reporters. “I take that as a compliment.” The budget announces no ambitious new programs and no big new cuts. It was designed to ease the federal government out of deficits, a task Flaherty nearly accomplished this year and will complete with a $6.4-billion surplus next year. Flaherty’s method is consistent: to compensate for growing transfer payments to provinces and to individuals, “our government has reduced direct program spending for the third year in a row,” he told MPs during his budget speech. “That is something no other government has done in decades.”

But there is always room to do something new when total government spending is at a quarter of a trillion dollars. Flaherty’s budget seeks to accomplish political goals in at least three ways.

First, it offers the Conservatives a chance to campaign with a surplus in the 2015 election, one they can promise to allocate toward new tax cuts.

Second, it seeks to pacify two controversies that have sapped the government. On resource development, the government’s 2012 attempt to pit resource companies against environmentalists simply aggravated controversies over major pipeline projects. The new budget picks no new fights on that front. And the government is trying to shake a growing reputation as an enemy of science. The budget announced a Canada First Research Excellence Fund that will grow to $200 million a year for university-based research.

Third, the budget continues the work of Stephen Harper’s life by seeking to build voter support for the Conservative party. That long-term effort has already substantially increased the Conservative vote among Jewish voters, Roman Catholics, new Canadians and parents of large families. Now the budget bestows particular favour on populations that might be wooed next: it’s a rural and suburban budget more than an urban budget, and it encourages college education and the skilled trades more than university education.

The assessment exception for car-owning students is a good example: it benefits those who drive to commuter colleges over those who walk or take public transit to leafy downtown campuses. One of the largest expenditures in the budget, in terms of dollars per beneficiary, is a $305-million plan to extend broadband Internet coverage to 280,000 rural and northern households, at more than $1,000 per house. The budget expands Canada Student Loans to apprentices in the skilled trades, and announces the feds will start administering a Canada Jobs Grant for skills training on April 1, whether the provinces agree or not.

The budget documents go to great lengths to demonstrate a need for a major focus on college education and vocational training. “The supply of apprentices in Canada is relatively small compared to other countries,” says one chart—which shows Canada actually already has more apprentices per capita than England, France and the United States. Another chart announces employers’ “increased difficulty hiring skilled trades workers,” but it shows job vacancies in the trades passed those in the “science-based occupations” only a year ago and still stand barely higher.

How, then, to explain Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s recent fascination with college education over universities? In a recent interview he noted that Germany has half of Canada’s university participation rate. On Twitter he posts photos of himself visiting career colleges as often as he once showed himself at Tibetan community dinners. A possible explanation for the Conservatives’ fascination with college education comes from three pollsters Maclean’s contacted.

The raw numbers vary from one pollster to another, but Ipsos Reid, Abacus and Ekos Research have all found lately that vote support correlates closely with educational attainment. It’s among voters with a college education that the Harper Conservatives are most competitive with the Trudeau Liberals. It’s among university graduates that the Liberal advantage is greatest. Ipsos found a 16-point Liberal lead among university graduates; it shrinks to only one point among college grads. Ekos found the Conservatives three points ahead of the Liberals among college grads, and nine points back among university grads.

“This is a critical new fault line,” Ekos’s Frank Graves told Maclean’s. “These gaps across university and college [cohorts] didn’t exist in the pre-Harper period.”

With 20 months to go until a probable 2015 election, Harper is concentrating on areas of advantage that might help him win a fourth consecutive campaign. Victory has never come easily for him. The Senate expense scandal and the arrival of two strong new opposition leaders, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, ensure next time will be no different. In 2011 Harper told an interviewer he wanted to make sure he stayed busy throughout his majority mandate. Lately his government has been as good as his word.

Flaherty’s budget is only part of a broad policy offensive. Since the House of Commons returned from a long winter break on Jan. 28, several ministers have delivered sweeping reforms. Two of the most ambitious changes came from rookie ministers. Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre overhauled the Canada Elections Act in ways that, his opponents claim, will increase the Conservative party’s fundraising advantage and limit Elections Canada’s ability to play referee. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander bolstered the Conservatives’ tough-on-crime credentials by saying he’ll strip Canadian citizenship from any dual citizen found guilty of terrorism.

Even when it isn’t cutting or spending in attention-grabbing ways, a government can still campaign. Harper is betting he can extend his advantage in countless small ways, thoroughly enough to offset the erosion in support that threatens any long-standing government. The fate of his government, and his legacy, depends on the effort.