Staring across the table at a bloodthirsty opposition and an increasingly skeptical electorate, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has decided to go all-in.
Morneau's fourth budget — and the last before a fall federal election — eschewed austerity and deficit control in favour of more than $20 billion in new program spending to create more affordable housing, extend more money for skills training, expand drug coverage, enhance high-speed internet, provide income boosts for seniors and improve living conditions for Indigenous peoples.
Morneau had the option of holding the line on spending and using the more than $10 billion in unanticipated revenue the federal government expects to collect in this current fiscal year to report a dramatically lower deficit. Instead, all that revenue and more will be spent on programs that the Liberals believe will entice voters going into the election.
The master strategy is pretty obvious: Morneau and the Liberals are making a grand wager that largesse for core government services will not only create contrast with the federal Conservatives, their principal opponents, but also draw attention away from the still-smouldering SNC-Lavalin controversy.
From first light to late afternoon, budget day provided a very clear picture of both the dilemma facing the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the strategy it's employing — using the budget to leapfrog concern over political meddling in the criminal charges facing Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.
The House of Commons justice committee gathered Tuesday morning, hours before Morneau tabled his budget, and voted to cease its investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair. The Liberal majority on the committee issued a terse statement indicating that "we have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings."
The decision to stall further testimony on SNC-Lavalin — and concerns that the Prime Minister's Office and others tried to intimidate former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould into helping the engineering firm avoid criminal prosecution — set off angry threats from opposition MPs to use procedural tactics to delay introduction of the budget.
However, Morneau and the Liberals managed to pull a fast one on the opposition, introducing the budget earlier than anticipated to avoid stalling tactics. Morneau's speech was delayed by procedural motions, but the raw details of the budget itself were widely publicized by news organizations the moment he tabled the document.
The opposition did not go quietly. Even after Morneau finally rose to deliver his speech, Conservative and NDP MPs created a thunderous din by shouting and thumping their desks.
The Liberal tactic, in and of itself, was a bit of procedural brilliance. Rather than focusing solely on opposition protests and procedural motions, the official release of the budget papers meant journalists were busy pumping out stories on Morneau's spending plan. It didn't erase the SNC-Lavalin controversy from everyone's consciousness, but it certainly turned it into a faint, underlying soundtrack to the big numbers in the budget.
Voters can expect to see the Liberals use all of the majority-government tools at their disposal to continue pushing the controversy further from public view, while drawing more attention to the spending plan for the upcoming year. Embedded in all that strategic politics will be a simple message: do you want more government, or less?
The Liberals have been badly wounded by the SNC-Lavalin affair to date, and clearly the Trudeau government would clearly rather face condemnation for shutting down the justice committee than the damage that could come from a second round of testimony from Wilson-Raybould.
The Liberals certainly hope that their budget has enough in it to draw attention away from SNC-Lavalin.
Morneau delivered an array of programs for seniors including a pledge that those with lower incomes will be able to earn $15,000 (up from $3,000) before Ottawa begins to clawback the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Along with expanded drug coverage, the federal budget strikes a number of senior-friendly notes.
Younger Canadians, as well, had a lure dangled in their direction. Lower interest rates, and a longer interest-free period, on student loans along with other Millennial-friendly policies — a $5,000 subsidy for electric cars, larger withdrawals from RRSPs and a first-time homebuyer interest-free loan — certainly create talking points for younger demographics when it comes time to decide whether to vote, and for whom .
There are no huge-ticket items in the budget; just lots and lots of medium-sized goodies that hit on a wide array of key issues for the electorate. The big question now is, will this be enough to quash further interest in SNC-Lavalin?
The Trudeau government's decision to shut down further justice committee hearings suggests that Wilson-Raybould, the key figure in the controversy, may not want to say much more about what went on between her and Trudeau's senior staff. She has so far indicated an interest in remaining a candidate for the Liberal party in the October election; unless she abandons that plan, it is unlikely she will protest the cessation of committee hearings.
Without Wilson-Raybould, the opposition will find itself in a real predicament. Tory Leader Andrew Scheer's increasingly shrill allegations of a coverup and calls for a judicial inquiry will eventually wear thin without additional new information on the controversy. Particularly in the wake of a pre-election budget that has enough in it to drive news coverage for weeks to come.
For now, SNC-Lavalin continues to burn brightly on the federal political stage. However, with the introduction of Morneau's budget, the Liberals are very close to starving this controversy of the oxygen needed to keep the fire going.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Tuesday, March 19, 2019 at 7:19 PM CDT: Updates headline