Election likely, attempting to alienate the electorate... definitely

The drama is over and Jack Layton and the NDP clearly did the right thing, very quickly rejecting the Conservatives' budget and pledging to vote against it "in its current form." That held out the possibility of voting in favour of an amended budget, which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty quickly scotched with a Bush-like -- you either vote for it or against it. 

An election is a certainty -- though it could still come via a vote of non-confidence later this week based on a committee's findings that the Harper government was in contempt of Parliament for refusing to reveal the real costs of it its 18 crime bills.

The Conservatives clearly want an election but want someone else to be blamed for having to have one. They have not been hurt as badly as they should have been by the multiple sleazy scandals they created and they know the economy is going to get worse over the next six months as the stimulus money dries up. Now is their best chance to get a majority.

They put just enough in the budget, strategically targeting key voter constituencies, to be able to hit the NDP and Liberals over the head with during the election -- pointing to a few items and blaming the opposition parties for voting against them. Example: $300 million addition to the Guaranteed Income Supplement (amounting to $50 a month more for only the most destitute seniors). The CLC calculated that to actually come close to eliminating the worst poverty amongst seniors, an additional $1.1 billion was the minimum required.

The Canadian Association of Retired People rejected the increase as totally inadequate -- while, bizarrely, CLC President Ken Georgetti publicly endorsed it. What on earth he thought he was doing is anyone's guess -- but the Conservatives can be counted on to use his remarks to beat up on Layton during the election. (Ken -- you need to get out more.)

The Conservatives were so nervous about the possibility that the NDP might actually support the budget that they delivered a very thin gruel, making it very easy for the NDP to reject. Initially, Layton had said the NDP was going to sleep on the budget and have a caucus meeting Wednesday morning to discuss it -- perhaps anticipating disagreement within the caucus. But in the end, Layton was before the mics less than an hour after the budget saying no.

After not saying a single word on healthcare for five years -- remember, Harper was President of the National Citizens Coalition, founded to oppose Medicare -- the budget had some programs to enhance it. It features a tax break for family caregivers and a break on loan repayments for new doctors and nurses. Just enough to say they were doing something -- and also to blame the NDP for eliminating the new programs.

It is interesting that Flaherty, while sticking foolishly to the $6 billion corporate tax cut, closed a $2.9 billion corporate tax loophole used mostly by the oil patch (did Steve know?).

If this budget is the basis for the Conservatives' election platform then they look very vulnerable. There are a whole swath of targeted tax cuts -- music lessons is one - as if Harper was trying to chop up the population into tiny groups and then buy them off.

While Ignatieff has gone nowhere in the polls of late, his response to the budget actually looked pretty good -- hammering away at the Harperites for their billions of spending on jets and jails and corporate tax cuts when Canadians are wanting. He actually looked as though he cared.

In a fight to frame the election -- ethics and democracy versus the economy -- the budget is a very weak hand. Which suggests that at the very least negative advertising will continue to play a major role in the Conservative campaign. That is designed not only hurt Ignatieff -- it will convince thousands of Canadians to stay home on voting day.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, where he writes a column and blog. Murray has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years.

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