Canadian PM's near-death experience forces budget about-face

Canada's minority Conservative Government has survived its first budget test after prematurely proroging Parliament late last year. However PM Stephen Harper is on a tight leash

There’s nothing like being an inch away from political death to refocus a Prime Minister, and when last we met Canada’s Stephen Harper he was just a constitutional precedent away from oblivion.

After proroguing Parliament late last year rather than face certain defeat of his minority government at the hands of a combined opposition coalition, Harper was back this week with a budget that has done such an about face on his November Fiscal Update, it is hard to take him seriously.

Gone is the fantasy that Canada was not going into recession but would rather run a slight surplus. Gone is the major skite about how well his Conservatives have managed the economy. Gone are the deliberate ideological pokes in the eyes of opposition parties.

Harper has been widely pilloried for having run away from the music through the prorogation, but now he has absolutely nowhere left to hide. If his budget does not pass, he’s toast.

So he’s presented a budget that is at best a hodge-podge of treats for all sorts of sectors in the hopes that he can please them all and avoid a defeat. In so doing he’s painted a tidal wave of red across the Canadian accounting ledger.

The supposed slight surplus has miraculously morphed into an $85 billion deficit over five years. What a difference two months teetering on the edge of a political abyss has made. However, apart from the staggering deficit numbers, there’s no real focus in the document. Notably absent is any new direction that would leverage Canada out of the current economic crisis and avoid structural deficits once that crisis is over.

Harper’s budget has all the signs of some technically challenged soul who finds himself in front of a very complicated control panel and opts to simply push all the buttons and hoping for the best.

As a result, Harper has had to endure some of his the bully tactics he's renowned for. The main opposition party, the Liberals, have since last year appointed the somewhat haughty intellectual Michael Ignatieff as leader and he promises to be a formidable sparring partner for the also intellectual Harper.

Ignatieff is right to ridicule the PM for this budget, which for no reason other than crude political survival includes issues raised by the opposition parties that so successfully threatened to bring down the government. The lack of cohesion stemming from such a panicky list of other people's wishes is cause for concern. But more than that, is the fact that Harper has been forced to address issues that don’t sit well with his party’s philosophy. Others in Parliament do not trust him.

For now, Harper will limp on. But only because he’s officially on probation.

The Conservatives will have to report regularly to Parliament on, amongst other issues, the ongoing economic situation, actual implementation actions, the policies' impact on the most vulnerable Canadians, the minimizing of job losses, and an assurance that the deficit will not be a burden to future generations or a detriment to economic recovery.

Ignatieff has warned Harper this is no green light. At best, he has been given flashing yellow lights to proceed with extreme caution.

The Liberals have in the past been forced to support Conservative measures because they were not ready for the election dissention would trigger. Now the landscape has changed. The unholy alliance of the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals last year showed they could topple Harper and thereby created a brand new reality.

Ignatieff was a reluctant bride to that coalition, which really is made up of parties who hate each other but detest Harper even more. No ideological halos there either.

However Canada does not need another election with six weeks of campaigning while the economy further implodes, jobs are lost, houses foreclosed, along with all the other ills that have hit capitalism. Nor would Ignatieff want to inherit this bag of economic garbage just now.

So, he’s put Harper on a leash – a very tight leash, he believes – to ensure the free pass, take-it-or-leave-it, my-way-or-the-highway Harper style of governing has gone.

Ignatieff has incurred the wrath of the NDP and the Bloc for essentially denying them their opportunity to grab power. Yet from his performance so far he looks unfazed by their tantrums. Instead, Ignatieff seems to be living his own writings, known as he is for taking a “lesser evil” approach to various distasteful international political behaviours.

The Liberal’s amendment calling for the oversight of the PM goes to the vote on Monday, followed by the vote on the budget itself. In passing, such legislation heralds the beginning of a more uncomfortable reign for Harper. Confidence could be pulled at any misstep. Iggy has vowed to stare him down and watch him like the hawk he bears a strange physical resemblance to.