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Chris Selley: Tory plan to get back to balance not without risk

Chris Selley: Tory plan to get back to balance not without risk
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WINNIPEG — Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, there were arguably two major policy distinctions between the Liberals and the Conservatives. On climate change policy, you had a credible Liberal market-based plan to reduce emissions (while missing targets), and you had a Conservative plan to ditch the Liberal plan and replace it with a far less credible plan. For climate change voters, the choice between the two couldn’t have been clearer.

And on tax policy, you had a Liberal record of increasing the burden on the top one per cent and a promise to continue targeting the richest, and you had a Conservative plan that would bring back “income sprinkling” and ease restrictions on passive income held in corporations.

But Friday’s platform launch officially put austerity, or what passes for austerity, on the agenda as well. The Liberals have been warning of savage cuts under a Conservative government since day one, of course — campaigning as much against Ontario Premier Doug Ford as against Andrew Scheer. Now it’s in black and white: The Conservatives project a return to balanced budgets in five years, with the single biggest chunk of the savings coming from delayed infrastructure spending.

What passes for austerity in modern Canadian politics is a projected 1.8 per cent-per-annum spending increase. Your average Canadian might think that achievable with a few painless nips and tucks. But one of the most remarkable aspects of Ford’s government is how many stakeholders he has infuriated while still increasing overall government spending. Spending increased every year under Stephen Harper as well — except in the stimulus wind-down — and as Scheer was reminded at a Monday press conference in Winnipeg, many veterans in particular did not feel the love.

Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is congratulated by Ontario Premier Doug Ford at the Ontario PC Convention 2018 held at the Toronto Congress Centre on Saturday November 17, 2018.

Except in times of natural disaster or war, you might reasonably argue there’s no point even being a conservative party if you don’t have a plan to get back to a balanced budget. Canada’s tribal politics can tolerate most any cognitive dissonance, but there are a few things partisans still demand. And there are some convenient targets for cuts on offer here: corporate welfare (please!), “high-priced consultants,” travel and hospitality, tax evasion. Targeting foreign aid is a bit off-piste — especially at a whopping 25 per cent — but one can imagine a “Canada first” message resonating in parts of the conservative family.

Infrastructure, though, is a risky target. The Conservatives insist they’re committed to all the projects the Liberals were; they’re just spreading the spending over 15 years instead of 12. The result is $18 billion in savings over five years, but they insist it’s not all real money, since the Liberals have spent considerably less on infrastructure than they budgeted. Indeed, the platform attacks Trudeau for being “unable to get infrastructure money out the door” — but instead of promising to do better, it punts some unidentified projects down the road into the decade after next.

Infrastructure is generally not a point of partisan divide. Canadians tend to think of it in terms of things they needed 10 years ago, not things they’re hoping for in 15. Infrastructure is the Greater Toronto Area’s pitiful commuter rail situation, Toronto proper’s full-to-bursting Yonge subway line, its decades-in-the-making and universally agreed-to-be-necessary downtown relief line. It’s the long-discussed SkyTrain extensions to the University of British Columbia and Langley. It’s less congested ways to cross the Fraser River between Delta and Richmond, B.C., and the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and Lévis.

It’s far more basic things, too, like all those First Nations boil-water advisories the Liberals promised to end — and for that matter, the hundreds of hydro towers destroyed by an early winter storm in Manitoba over the weekend. Dozens of evacuees were awaiting rehousing in the lobby of the downtown Winnipeg hotel where Scheer gave his Monday press conference. Some felt it a bit gauche he was campaigning amidst a state of emergency.

The Conservative platform singles out some projects for support: Toronto’s downtown relief line, the Delta-to-Richmond tunnel and the new bridge between Quebec City and Lévis. But judging from local headlines, people across the country are wondering all the more if their necessities might be on the chopping block. The endless Liberal attacks might suddenly look a bit more credible.

Meanwhile, the Conservative platform promises to maintain the number of full-time equivalent positions in a federal public service that has grown 12 per cent since Trudeau took over. Surely there’s a happy medium between former Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak’s disastrous pledge to fire 50,000 civil servants and a commitment to Trudeau-sized government. Never mind whether it’s credible to cut six per cent of government spending over five years without touching salaries and benefits. From a conservative standpoint, why is it even desirable?

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