Fiscal responsibility should be the cornerstone of conservative policies, but Andrew Scheer took into account the political cost when he gave up his promise to balance the budget within two years of taking office.
It is an extraordinary step for a conservative leader. His party assaulted Justin Trudeau's Liberals for years for not matching the budget, and now Mr. Scheer is saying that the budget will come later – not even in a first Tory mandate in office.
But he was always coming to this crossroads.
If it did not give up that commitment in a balanced budget, this fall would not have an electoral platform – at least not one with promises of tax cuts or spending measures. Meanwhile, the liberals depicted him as a budget clipper obsessed with austerity that would cut programs that are important to Canadians.
Liberals were already firing shots that threw Mr. Scheer as a budget drift. After the conservative leader gave a relatively vague speech about his economic "vision" in Toronto on May 16th, Finance Minister Bill Morneau launched a planned attack that stated that Mr. Scheer's fiscal agenda would require 55 billion. of dollars in cumulative budget cuts for five years.
One could quibble with the figure of Morneau, based in part on liberals' estimates of the cost of promises that Mr. Scheer has already made.
But the big problem for the conservatives was that the thrust of the discussion was undeniable: if Mr. Scheer would balance the budget in two years, he would have to make deep cuts. Given the deficits projected in Mr. Morneau's last balance sheet, Mr. Scheer should have cut tens of billions in spending before paying for his promises; he should have taken $ 15 billion in annual spending from his second budget and about $ 40 billion over a four-year term.
So when he delivered his economic vision speech for the 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.
Of course, he could blame the "reckless" liberal deficits – which he did. But it was a step backwards with respect to the fiscal discipline that your party preached. Projecting a balanced budget in five years is the political equivalent of balancing balanced budgets. It implies that voters who really care about balanced budgets will still vote conservatively. But the other political options were also bad.
Sean Speer, a former PMO adviser to Stephen Harper, who is now a public policy researcher at the Munk School of the University of Toronto, said the deficit meant that Mr. Scheer faced a "trilemma": a difficult choice that modern conservatives had not faced when trying to gain power.
He said conservatives generally want to put together three things when putting a fiscal policy on their electoral platform: balanced budgets to adapt to the fiscal responsibility brand, avoiding projections of deep budget cuts that could scare voters and make their election promises of tax cuts or new expenses.
The latter seems to be a political necessity, judging from recent campaigns. If you go to an electoral campaign with no space to pay the promises that voters believe will influence their lives, it is difficult to present a farsighted agenda – and this is what captures the attention of voters.
In 2006, when Harper was a leader of the opposition, he didn't have to choose, Mr. Speer said. The liberal government has had a surplus. Mr. Harper has promised to balance the budget and cut the GST. But with the 2015 elections, with tight public finances, he had to choose: his election campaign did not include many promises that they announced every day, and Mr. Trudeau did it.
Now, liberal deficits have made the choice even tougher. To quickly balance the budget, Mr. Scheer should have cut. Liberals knew this when Mr. Morneau drafted his March budget: they tightened their spending promises partly to provide a stark contrast to a conservative leader who would cut.
Mr. Scheer made his choice. Postpone the two-year budget commitment in balance which he made when he tried to get the support of the conservative party members. He's going after the swing voters now. He doesn't want to scare them with the cuts. And he wants to be able to make election promises this fall.
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