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Mr. Not-So-Scary
03/05/2006

So, the first Stephen Harper budget has been introduced. On the whole, it is difficult to criticize passionately. While there are some valid reasons to dislike it, it strikes me as a fair representation of the policies that got the Conservatives elected without too much of the things that scared other voters off.

Of course, as Declan pointed out, it's pretty easy to write a budget like this when you start from the base of an $18-billion surplus.

Looking back at the ways Stephen Harper turns out to be not-so-scary, two main areas are the fiscal imbalance and urban affairs.

On the fiscal imbalance front, I wrote (in my pre-election review):

This talk about the "fiscal imbalance" has raised many concerns about the Conservatives' intentions. If anywhere there was a loophole for a "hidden agenda" to pop out, this would be it. The fiscal imbalance could be addressed by transfering tax points to the provinces while simultaneously cutting transfers for health, education and social spending and/or equalization. This could jeopardize key programs in have-not provinces, and eventually have an adverse effect on Ontario, Alberta and BC as well.

Well, I see no sign of anything like that. They haven't taken any action on this issue yet, but they have laid out their priorities for how to attack it. While they plan to move the federal government away from designing plans and imposing them on the provincial governments, it sounds like they intend on maintaining -- even increasing -- the fiscal transfers to the lower orders of government.

I'm a federalist who supports a strong role for Ottawa in setting national standards that stretch from coast to coast. I'll be disappointed if this changes. However, so long as each province has the money required to keep up, then this isn't a nightmare scenario. Finance Minister Flaherty said "Provincial governments have to be able to focus on their core responsibilities. They have to have the resources they need to meet those responsibilities."

Furthermore, the Conservatives are commited to working out a deal with the provinces. This means they are unlikely to implement a response that puts the 7-8 have-not provinces (including Quebec) at a disadvantage.

Another issue where there was great fear was the urban agenda.

Prior to the 2004 election -- where Harper was running with a different platform -- the criticism of him on the urban agenda was diverse and extreme:

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell: "I mean we're talking traditional right-wing government. That's the barbarians at the gate. It's unthinkable that we would go back. I mean he wants to take us back to the 50s."

However, Harper's 2006 promises, and the results in the budget, tell a different story. A review by James Bow highlights some of the areas of Conservative support for transit. The Liberals' New Deal for Cities is being maintained as is, and most of the Jack Layton budget survived.

On the whole Toronto Mayor Miller seemed to feel the budget was mixed but positive. There is support for infrastructure, immigration and housing. The only shortfall is the reduced help for day care.

Is this the budget I would have written? Probably not. But it is a reasonable budget from a Conservative government. And it isn't comparable to either Mike Harris or George W. Bush -- the two reference points that the Toronto Star would like us to use.

Ultimately, this document seems like an evolution, not a revolution. It's taking what has worked for the Liberals, and tweaking it.


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