Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2016 (1469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose took to her feet in the House of Commons Wednesday to lash out against the Liberal government for ruining the previous government’s fiscal management.
"In just 100 days, this prime minister has burned through the Conservative surplus," she said.
The Liberal caucus practically exploded, it laughed so hard.
Ambrose was referring to the fact fiscal books for the first three quarters of this year showed the government posted a modest $1-billion surplus. Projections for the year end, however, suggest the government will in fact be in the red.
And so will go the haggling over who is responsible for this fiscal year.
The trouble Ambrose and the rest of the Conservatives have is finding a way to criticize a government when your own record is still part of the game.
Time and again, that record gets thrown back in their faces, whether it’s about getting pipelines approved, employment insurance complaints fixed, or, in this case, running deficits.
The Conservatives had a brief, shining moment during the election campaign when the Finance Department was able to report that instead of running an expected deficit in 2014-15, the Conservatives actually ran a $1.9-billion surplus.
It was the first balanced budget in seven years.
Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, the Conservatives ran six deficits ranging from $5.2 billion to $55.6 billion. They added $144.7 billion to the national debt.
But wait, says finance critic Lisa Raitt. That was totally "necessary," and they didn’t really want to do it.
"Our government shared our regret at the time, but it was necessary to choose this course because we knew it was temporary," Raitt told the House of Commons Feb. 4. "We chose it because we knew it was what Canadian families and businesses needed."
This week she upped the ante, responding to Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Twitter by saying the billions the Conservatives added to the debt led to "1.2 million net new jobs, lower taxes, and fewer children in poverty, and registered disability plans... "
There are some differences, of course, between then and now. Notably, the economy in 2008 was in recession. The economy right now isn’t growing much, but it’s not shrinking, either. Regardless, the Liberals contend today, much as the Conservatives did eight years ago, a deficit is necessary to help stimulate the economy.
Many economists agree with them, some even suggesting forcing a balanced budget could push the country into a recession.
But there are legitimate questions to be raised and legitimate criticisms to be posed about the Liberal fiscal plans. How, then, do the Conservatives go about doing that without having their own record thrown back at them? How long will they be forced to live in political purgatory over their government’s record?
Michele Austin, a senior adviser at Summa Strategies and former chief of staff to Ambrose when she was the minister of public works, said, "There is no magic eight ball" when it comes to knowing how long this can be a problem.
The best thing the Conservatives can do is "be sincere and explain your approach."
The Conservatives are struggling a little to figure out the Opposition role, and in part, that’s because many of them felt blindsided by the election loss, Austin said. The party is left to rebuild with most of the key players gone, one-third of the caucus new to Parliament and two-thirds never having been in Opposition before.
Add to that, says Austin, the fact the Liberals have not done very much specifically yet, and the Conservatives are left to oppose a lot of hypothetical plans.
Liberal MPs are still sort of giddy about being able to use the Conservatives’ record against them. It makes question period far easier on new ministers still getting their feet wet, one MP said recently. He predicted it could be about two years before that tack gets stale.
It is, however, unlikely the Liberals will stop trying to use the Conservatives’ record against them that quickly. Heck, the Manitoba NDP still throws the record of the last Manitoba Tory government around, even though it has been more than 16 years since a Tory sat in the premier’s chair.
Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief in Ottawa.