Another Federal Budget has been brought down, and I must confess the whole thing was boring in the extreme. We might, of course, have had at least a frisson of excitement as to whether the Opposition would manage to combine forces and precipitate an election, but as we know Stéphane Dion, Follower of the Official Opposition, signalled his latest backing down from the electoral abyss even before the Finance Minister rose in the House. So we are left with a limp rag of a budget and a limp rag of an Opposition: hardly inspiring, although it does leave Opening Day free and clear on the horizon to enjoy another year of baseball.
I’m not about to whinge about the Liberals. They are as entitled as anyone to make fools of themselves in public, and I must say that I think, along with Jeff Jadras of A BCer in TO and many other Liberal bloggers, that this is one opportunity missed too many. How, really, can anyone take any bluff or bluster out of the mouths of the chicken pen seriously after this? Why, indeed, even listen to it, other than habit? Steve V of Far and Wide this morning asks the key question, which is that if this was about simple lack of readiness to compete then why not just admit it and head onward to mid-October 2009, when the fixed election date comes up, and no more snorting and pawing the ground only to tuck tails between legs one more time. When even the columnists of the Liberal Party’s House Organ, the Toronto Star, start questioning why we should care, as reported in Blogging a Dead Horse, I think the answer is clear: we shouldn’t.
Yet there were reasons for disappointment with this budget, and they’re not the ones laid out by Garth Turner. From the point of view of the twenty-first century, as opposed to the twentieth, not dumping money on dying industrial models is a good thing. Yes, in Ontario times are tough. All the money that’s been sloshed at the extended automobile industry over decades, however, hasn’t protected that economy, those jobs or the affected families. The industry – as with any industry – is prepared to take any hand-out on offer, and then do exactly what it was going to anyway. Border constraints imposed by the US Department of Homeland Security make just in time inventory processes that cross the border inefficient and unpredictable. We will end up with other marques prospering that source parts not made in Canada from outside North America, and American marques dying unless there are exceptional reasons to deal with that border. Slopping money is simply filling up the pig-trough and not solving the real problem – which is essentially beyond a Canadian solution in any case.
It’s what isn’t being done by what is ostensibly a Conservative government that bothers me, as I suspect it bothers Aaron Wudrick of the Wudrick Blog when he comments on just how “Liberal” our Conservative Government is. Oh, well, as Joanne of Blue Like You points out, there are political implications, and perhaps we should be satisfied with the opportunity for yet more self-immolation on the Red(-faced) Team’s side of the aisle. But I am not.
There is so much slop in the system already – programmes for every two-bit cause known to mankind and every supplicant under the sun, delivered through Industry Canada, the regional economic expansion arms (ACOA, WD and the rest of the handout brigade), dribbles from Heritage, pork pie from HRSDC, a bit of IRAP money from the NRC here and some CANARIE droppings there (I defy you to find the year or two you’ll need to sort through the many layers of “beg and receive” set up over the years by previous governments) – and really, after two years in office, there is little excuse for this continuing. Then, too, the whinge from the more hawk-like Liberals is that “we left you guys a whopping surplus and you’ve handed it out all over the map, so now you get to flirt with the danger of not breaking even”. True enough, but the problem isn’t with the GST reductions, the income tax changes, the new tax saving account, or the child care money. The problem is with all the other new programme spending on top of all the existing programmes, most of which have carried on blindly and blithely spreading their steaming droppings onto the Canadian economy, distorting it. Why, indeed, would anyone in VC land actually think about the size of investment needed to make the company they’re interested in successful when they know there are all those programmes out there to pick up their slack? Why would managers care to invest in their own business’s future out of earnings, or worry about whether their products have a viable market, when there’s all that money slopping around to go prop things up, or build a new product that can attract the cash but has no proven market applicability?
All this largesse, in other words, has created a Canadian entrepreneurship good at complaining, good at buck-passing, and good at form-filling and report writing, but not one that cares to get down and do the hard work of scratching out a living the old fashioned way: earning it.
A Conservative government ought to be expected to, at the very least, challenge the 400,000+ civil serpents who are busy running this national slush account in its many forms. If they wanted to keep certain types of programme – perhaps they, too, have some sort of Chrétienite “Innovation Agenda” – then at least they could clean them up, rationalise them, sweep away the programmes hanging on for the last 1% of the job they originally were specified to carry out that will never finish, and the like. But no: we just add to the pile, and the Canadian taxpayer and productive business person groans under the load.
After all, if Conservatives won’t bring fiscal order to government, who will? The “never met a handout for Québec I didn’t like” Bloc? The “there’s airtime and the pretense of relevance in asking for money” New Democrats? The “none of you are doing enough” Greens? Or the “hey, you’re being Liberal enough for us” Liberals? Don’t make me laugh.
But we’re stuck, aren’t we? It’s much more fun to hand it out than to clean it up, and it always will be. The notion that taxes are an impost (and hence an imposition) on taxpayers is long dead: the question is now put as “how much will taxpayers be left with” as opposed to “how little should we take”. The notion that programmes should have a defined end-point and then be shut down is long gone in favour of perfection, “finishing the job” (which is never done, and always expanding). We as a nation will be sucked dry – although what’s been done to this point is precisely why Ontario is dying, Québec and the Atlantic provinces died and the West – the country’s last bastion of productivity and growth – is at risk.
It’s the being stuck that made Flaherty’s budget yesterday a yawner, not the items in it.