Who’s going to blink first on Freeland’s budget?

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All budget positioning will be the precursor to a likely election and who blinks first may well end up the loser.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 29, 2021.

Budget preparation is not just about the spending priorities of the government.

It is also about crafting a plan that would be election-ready should the opposition parties decide to defeat the government.

In the upcoming budget, the government will be working to try and trap the opposition, while the other parties will be trying to highlight their priorities.

In particular, attention will be paid to the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois, because if they both vote with the government, there will be no election.

Obviously, with the current polling numbers in their favour, the Liberals would love to trigger a spring election. But they also do not want to appear as though they are forcing people to the polls in the middle of a pandemic.

By throwing a couple of items in the budget that cannot be supported by the NDP or the Bloc, the Liberals could manoeuvre both parties into a corner.

For example, the government would really like to strengthen national cooperation on long-term care facilities, when operations are provincial jurisdiction.

During the pandemic, the number of people who died in long-term care facilities varied widely from province to province, begging the question why?

And the only way to answer that question is to have some sort of national facilities oversight.

The Bloc could never support such a move and might be forced to vote against the budget in principle.

Conversely, the New Democrats support national intervention in the homecare system. Not only do they support national intervention, but they are also opposed to any private-sector participation in the long-term care facilities management systems.

By reinforcing national standards and at the same time, guaranteeing a private sector role in chronic care facilities management, the government could corner the New Democrats on the budget.

On the political side, every minister and every Member of Parliament is lining up to secure their regional and ministerial budget priorities.

In a lengthy document like the budget, small items can be buried that mean a lot to a region.

I remember having a leadership discussion with a former Liberal MP, who told me that he had promised his support to Paul Martin if the finance minister delivered road infrastructure money to his riding. Those monies appeared in the next budget.

The finance minister has significant leeway to include line items that might not stir up a lot of attention but can yield political results.

In my time in cabinet, each minister would draw up a list of their priorities and that would be whittled down and submitted to a written vote in cabinet.

The votes were non-binding, but they did send a message to the minister and the prime minister about priorities around the table.

In one budget, my priority was funding for the Canadian War Museum, and I unleashed a team of popular veterans including former minister Barney Danson to lobby all my colleagues.

He was so effective, and so persistent, that the War Museum funding topped all other ministerial priorities in that budgetary process.

In the end, the official opposition Conservatives may have to swallow themselves whole and vote in favour of the budget, even if it reinforces the Supreme Court’s decision on March 25 affirming the odious carbon tax.

It wouldn’t be the first time a government falls over the question of taxation of gasoline.

Back in 1979, then finance minister John Crosbie introduced an 18-cent-a-gallon gas tax, figuring there was no way the Liberals would defeat him as they had just emerged form a huge election defeat.

Their leader Pierre Trudeau had already announced his plan to step down. However, when the budget was defeated and the Liberals were leaderless, Trudeau agreed to step back into the fray and ended up returning to majority government.

Crosbie’s budget gamble was based on the fact that the Liberals would not topple the government, and he wasn’t able to deliver the numbers for his government to survive. Instead, prime minister Joe Clark lost his job after only 10 months in office.

Budgets can make or break governments. And they can also do the same for all party leaders.

By supporting the budget, the NDP and the Bloc run the risk of throwing their lot in with the governing party.

That allows the Conservatives to position themselves as the only real opposition to the Liberals.

All budget positioning will be the precursor to a likely election.

Who blinks first may well end up the loser.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.