Next week the House of Commons will return for the final five months of sitting before this fall’s election. As MPs come back to take their seats they will be coming back to some big changes, none smaller than where those seats themselves will be. MPs will be starting to use the new “temporary” chamber located in the West Block, where our elected members will be debating and voting for the next decade at least while the Centre Block is being renovated.
As for the Senate, they will be enjoying their new space in the former Government Conference Centre (aka the former Ottawa Train Station) and taking a big step into the present at the same time. As soon as all the bugs are worked out, the proceedings taking place Red Chamber will now be televised. Forty-two years after Canadians from coast to coast to coast were able to watch the action taking place in the House of Commons, we will finally be able to do the same with the Senate.
Given the events that have happened since they last convened before the Holidays, it will be very interesting to follow the happenings that will take place under the new glass dome of the Commons. There are story lines for all the parties in the House as we enter the session, but what will be most interesting to follow is a certain big event that will come in the first half of this session. That event is the presentation of the Federal Budget.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau will table his budget at some point this spring, a budget that will lay the groundwork for not only what the Liberals plan to run on but will set the baseline for what the opposition parties will eventually put on the table. This budget will offer the government a big chance to set the direction they will go in 2019, whether if it’s a change of course or doubling-down on the path they’ve already set.
One piece of information that came out in the news today does offer an interesting potential wrinkle into what might happen. It came out today that the federal government only ran a $2.2 billion deficit in November, which is down from a $9.5 billion deficit that they ran in the same month last year. That’s an interesting turn of events given that Minister Morneau’s most recent fall update projected that this year’s deficit was going to be bigger than the last.
Being $7.3 billion ahead of your deficit number compared to the same time last year is an interesting place to find yourself in, especially in an election year. You do have to wonder how they got to this point but today its hard to say exactly what. But it if this trend continues, it could make the last budget before the 2019 election more interesting.
This offers the Liberals opportunities and some flexibility to maneuver either left or right, depending on where they want to go. Which way will they go? Will they use that extra capacity to increase spending in areas of interest, or take on a new policy initiative that will undercut a proposal or idea from the NDP to their left? Could that be money for the start of a pharma care program, for more child care spaces, to create more affordable housing, for more transit or for rural broadband? It could be any or all of those to some degree and would undercut the NDP’s chances of competing in the Fall in the process.
Or will they use that extra capacity to simply reduce the deficit, and undercut the Conservative attacks on the government for their years of deficit spending? Getting ahead of reducing the deficit and getting closer to budget balance could help to reinforce the Liberals economic credentials with Red Tory/Blue Liberal swing voters, while also helping to undercut the Conservative argument that the Liberals have no intention of ever balancing a budget again. They could take more space on the centre/centre-right of the spectrum and either undercut part of the Conservative message or force them further to the right.
Or will they use that space to do a bit of both? Invest a bit more here, lower the deficit a bit more there, and speak to all sides of the spectrum. That could be a way to hedge their bets but also could be a good approach given the relative strength or weakness of the opposition parties when. If Maxime Berner is eating away at the Conservative vote or the NDP vote isn’t rebounding by budget time, maybe the Liberals won’t feel the need to adjust too hard in one direction or the other.
Regardless of the choice they eventually make, the Liberals should be glad because they are in a position to actually have choices at their disposal thanks to this turn of events. If those figures showed that the deficit was on the same track or even a worse one than last year, that would take a lot of off the table for the government and leave them with fewer options, ones that would be less palatable and with greater political costs. We’ll see how it all plays out when the time comes but Budget 2019 will be the first big card to be played in this year’s election. It will have a lot to say about what the next nine months will look like and tonight it seems that the government has been dealt a better hand than they might have expected.