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Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

OTTAWA — The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery amid the pandemic's escalating third wave.

OTTAWA — The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery amid the pandemic's escalating third wave.

Yet despite the high stakes and expectations leading up to Ottawa’s first full spending plan in more than two years, the likelihood of the budget being forcefully opposed — or even outright rejected, triggering a snap federal election — seem remote at best.

“All budgets are political documents,” said Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal political aide and current senior vice-president of Proof Strategies. “But the politics around this one is probably going to be the lack of politics.”

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will rise in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon to present the budget, which the government has portrayed as its vision for shaping Canada’s economy for a post-pandemic world.

The Liberals have promised to lay out a plan to green the economy, create a national child-care system and help displaced workers improve their skills, while provinces, small businesses and others will be looking for aid with the pandemic and beyond.

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget.

Conservative finance critic Ed Fast wrote Freeland last week reiterating his party’s demands the government present a plan for reopening the economy that includes supporting small businesses while keeping spending under control and not raising taxes.

“We will be analyzing your budget for a plan that restores hope and confidence in every region of the country and delivers a road map to re-opening our economy and restoring our prosperity,” Fast wrote.

The NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Greens have also laid out their own demands for the budget, including in phone conversations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held with each party leader last week ahead of the spending plan.

With a minority of seats in the House of Commons, the Liberals need at least one opposition party to support the budget to avoid a snap election.

Yet the potential for real political drama appears to have been snuffed out already thanks to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s assertion last week that his party will not vote against the budget.

NDP finance critic Peter Julian reiterated that position in an interview on Sunday, saying: “Jagmeet has been very clear: We are not going to vote non-confidence in the midst of this third wave.”

That doesn’t mean the NDP will refrain from criticizing the budget if it does not meet the party's demands, Julian said, including the need for a national child-care system and universal pharmacare as well as taxes on the wealthy.

“We have taken, I think, the responsible route, which is where Canadians are as well,” he said. “There's not a single Canadian I've met or spoken to or talked to online that believes it would be in Canada's interest to have an election right now.”

Recent opinion polls, including one conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies for The Canadian Press, back up Julian's assertion.

Only 14 per cent of respondents to the Leger poll conducted between April 9 and 11 supported a spring election, while 29 per cent want one in the fall. Forty-three per cent said they hoped to see one later, while 14 per cent did not know.

The online survey of 1,504 Canadians cannot be assigned a margin of error because online panels are not considered random samples.

Yet while that would appear to give the Liberals’ carte blanche to roll out whatever measures and promises they want, MacEachern suggested the government should be careful about how far it pushes the envelope.

“Canadians are showing that they really do not have a lot of appetite for partisanship right now, and the government has to show that they're listening to Canadians,” he said.

And while the Liberals have previously talked about the need for preparing for a post-pandemic world, MacEachern suggested the government needs to be mindful that Canadians are nervous and worried about the third wave of COVID-19.

“Politically, if I was being asked for my advice, I would be careful of large aspirational language and programs right now,” he said.

Trudeau has repeatedly said he does not want an election, but declined to swear off triggering one before the passage of Bill C-19. The bill would amend voting laws to allow for a safe election during a pandemic.

The Liberals could decide to pull the plug themselves, and party insiders suggest that may happen over the summer provided the vaccine rollout continues apace and the pandemic, currently spreading like wildfire once again, is sufficiently doused.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press