Budget shouldn't have provoked an election

OK, the federal budget wasn't a great effort - mediocre even.
But there was also nothing in it that justifies the apparent decision by all three opposition parties to force an election. Unless something changes, Canadians could be going to the polls - or staying home - as early as May 2.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget presentation Tuesday pretty much offered a status quo approach, one consistent with the Conservative's past practices and election platforms.
The government is on track to eliminate the deficits - ramped up after the 2008 economic meltdown - by 2015. It went ahead with planned corporate tax cuts.
And while spending will be tightly controlled, the budget numbers did not suggest draconian cuts lie ahead. Overall spending in the next three years is to rise by about 2.5 per cent a year. Given inflation and population growth, that means some curbs, but not deep cuts.
Uninspiring, perhaps, but hardly outrageous.
The opposition parties disagree. Liberal leader Michael Igantieff says the government's priorities are wrong, urging more spending on social initiatives and less on defence. (The jet fighter purchase will figure prominently in a Liberal campaign.)
Bloc Qu�b�cois Leader Gilles Duceppe wants, as always, more money for his Quebec.
And NDP Leader Jack Layton says the budget failed to deliver on the issues he had set out as critical for winning the party's support, including measures to help poor seniors, pension reform and the elimination of the GST on home heating.
The Conservatives could have made a better effort to find common ground with Layton and reduce the chance of an election.
The budget did offer a $50 a month increase in the old age supplement for the poorest seniors, a benefit that will help some 500,000 people. And it extends the EcoENERGY Retrofit program that subsidized home renovations to reduce energy use, another Layton demand.
But instead of addressing the other issues, the budget included measures that seem more aimed at providing photo ops in an election campaign.
The budget creates a Children's Art Tax Credit, which lets parents claim a tax deduction for the first $500 spent on art classes or music lessons. It should be politically popular, but it's foolish policy. Effectively all other taxpayers will be subsidizing people affluent enough to afford private lessons for their kids.
Volunteer firefighters will get a similar tax break.
And, more usefully, people who care for ill relatives will get a tax credit worth about $400 a year - small, but welcome, and a nice campaign plank.
It was tough to find any specific measures aimed at B.C. in the budget - so much so that a news service roundup of regional initiatives left the province out entirely.
There is $60 million in funding for forest-sector research across Canada.
But forest-dependent communities across B.C. face a looming crisis as pone-beetle-killed wood is harvested and future timber is decades away from being harvestable. They need support now, for economic diversification efforts and retraining.
There is still a chance an election could be avoided, by a measure as simple as having a few opposition MPs skip the coming non-confidence vote.
But it appears that within the next 10 days - and perhaps by the end of the week - the Harper government will have fallen and Canadians will be facing an election campaign.
That's likely to be a destructive effort. Not just because the campaigns will feature more of the attack ads that discredit all involved, but because polls suggest voters have no great enthusiasm for any of the parties or their leaders. Too many of us will hold our noses and vote for the least offensive party - or simply stay home.
And worse, the polls also suggest that the outcome will most likely be a return of the Conservatives with another minority government.
That's a lot of disruption just to maintain the status quo.
Footnote: A federal election hands Premier Christy Clark a challenge. The provincial Liberals are a coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives. A hard-fought campaign risks leaving bruised feelings and divisions. The campaign could also limit Clark's flexibility in calling a provincial vote.

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