That the 2012 federal Budget would get mixed reviews, especially from folks who consider themselves fiscal conservatives, is hardly surprising. Dr. Roy is of the belief that they could have trimmed more — a lot more — from government spending. I have to admit, I think the public expectation was there; given how far in advance the PM made clear his thinking on spending, not to mention the hysteria coming from the Liberals (the NDP didn’t do all that much, having a leadership convention being their priority), there was certainly room in the general public’s mind for something more severe.
However, I think Paul Wells has a point: the idea of “Harper unleashed” supposes something of a super spectacle for the politically engaged, and this government simply does not do spectacular. Instead, you need to look at the fine print to realize that the PM is simply pursuing his favorite strategy: change by increments.
It’s going to be in the details where you learn how this government plans to cut down on its spending. That means, rather than the budget speech, you need to look at Chapter 5 of the Budget Plan to get an idea of how the government chooses the programs it wants to eliminate. For example:
- The penny: too expensive to keep replacing, costs more to produce than its own face value.
- The Public Appointments Commission secretariat: yes, it was a program the Tories brought in as part of its Accountability Act, but the Opposition effectively spiked it. And since nobody (including the Opposition) seemed interested in trying to make it work properly, it’s gone.
- National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). Given the number of academics already pursuing and publishing environmental studies, it’s just a redundancy.
- Katimavik. Not enough participants, too expensive. (And yes, it’s too well identified with the Trudeau era. And those who accuse the Tories of scrapping it because it’s a Liberal program should be reminded: partisanship is not an adequate defence for keeping a program around.)
- The Advanced Leadership Program at the Canada School of Public Service. Successful, but no longer cost effective.
Remember that last one, because it’s going to be important. When the Public Estimates come out from Treasury Board in the next month, that’s where you’ll see which government programs are going to be scaled back or eliminated. The first line of defence for any program on the block is that it “did what it was supposed to do, and did it well.” There’s a misconception at the base of this line, which is that a cut in spending is punitive, that somehow the program deserved to die because it was a failure.
The riposte to that line is simple: demonstrate that, no matter how well the program worked, its existence is no longer necessary. This is one of the hardest tasks to accomplish, especially if you happen to work in government: getting told you’re fired is already a shock, but being told you’re unnecessary is one of the most painful things a senior public servant can hear.
Which is another reason why public spending cuts can’t be as draconian as we might like: the public service needs to show that it understands what the government wants to cut back on, and it’s better to do that with a small target than a large one. Not as much of a shock to the system.
And speaking of systems: recall that for the past year, it was troubled economies like Greece that dominated the economic headlines, requiring austerity budgets in order to function. During that same period Canada has been selling the line that it has managed its economy properly in comparison. Dramatic austerity such as what the more dedicated economic conservatives have been advocating would have a cascading effect on the international economy, potentially resulting in the most unintended of consequences.
It’s useful to remember the main point of Stephen Harper being in power: not only does he want to steer the government towards a Conservative point of view, but he wants to do so in such a way that the Opposition will not be able to easily reverse it, even when they achieve their own majority government. With that in mind, the Harper practice of incrementalism is going to be his best weapon, as demonstrated by this budget. (And besides, if more reductions can be tolerated, he’s got two more budgets to really put the spurs on.)