Originally published in the the National Post on February 23rd, 2010. To go to the National Post website please click here
The Harper government’s announcement that it will spend $40-million to hire 100 new doctors for rural Canada should, in theory, reduce the babble about a federal election this spring.
Coupled with comments made by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in Paris last weekend, where he said some of the opposition’s demands fit with his plans to help low-income Canadians, the government’s move suggests we should anticipate a Goldilocks budget next month – not too lavish but not so restrained there won’t be some spending measures in it.
The Conservatives need the support of one other party to avoid an election. Since the Liberals and the Bloc Québecois have already indicated they won’t support the government, all eyes are on the NDP’s Jack Layton.
Mr. Layton met Stephen Harper last Friday and set out some specific demands, including money to hire new doctors and increased benefits for seniors.
Mr. Layton is unlikely to get all he wants on either front – he is calling for $200-million for doctors. The announcement by Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, Wednesday was in the works for months and spends money allocated in the last budget. The NDP was quick to note that the 100 new training positions in rural areas doesn’t come close to the 1,200 new doctors they have called for in previous years.
On seniors’ benefits, the NDP proposal to boost the Guaranteed Income Supplement would cost $700-milllion. Here, the government is likely to point out that a broad-based increase in benefits is prohibitively expensive and would boost the income of seniors already judged to be above the low income cut-off line. Mr. Flaherty has instead talked of “targeted” help for seniors.
Almost certainly, the NDP leader won’t get the cut the federal sales tax on home heating, he has called for – this measure comes with a recurring $2-billion price-tag. And it is doubtful if Mr. Flaherty will heed his call to restore the EcoEnergy Retrofit program.
But the Conservatives say they are listening and are costing Mr. Layton’s proposals to see if they can do business. This will allow the Prime Minister to be able to say he has listened to the opposition parties and included measures aimed at averting a spring election. His critics may doubt Mr. Harper’s sincerity when he says he would prefer to govern but insiders say he is perhaps the only Conservative in the country who is keen to avoid a trip to the polls.
The question is, would more money for new doctors and a boost for low income seniors be enough for Mr. Layton to face down the organized labour base of his party that will recoil at the thought of propping up a Conservative government? Thomas Mulcair, one the party’s deputy leaders, has said that he thought it unlikely the NDP could support a budget that does not repeal corporate tax cuts voted into legislation with the tacit support of the Liberal Party two years ago. Yet Mr. Layton has pointed out that the corporate tax cuts will not be included in this budget, so they are not a deal-breaker.