Anatomy of a Tactical Budget Response


As was apparent even before Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled the budget in a stealth counter-offensive move against Conservative obstruction tactics on March 19, the political stagecraft that accompanied the federal budget this year was overwhelmingly defined by its pre-election context. Conservative strategist Yaroslav Baran provides a rebuttal to the criticism of how the Official Opposition managed its 2019 budget response.


Yaroslav Baran

Budget 2019 is not just a policy document — it is a political document. In fact, politics, rather than policy, is a budget’s chief function.

What we call “the budget” — the thing Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled on March 19th — has little to do with the actual budgeting and financial administration of government. That is accomplished through a series of separate processes: the thrice- yearly adoption of spending “estimates”, expenditure authorization through the passage of “supply” or “appropriation” bills; and tax changes through the adoption of “ways and means” motions and corresponding legislation, giving government the ability to raise new funds.

The big annual event we call the federal budget is in fact a political statement. It is a policy signal of where the government wants to go, how it wants to position itself, and, in a pre-election year, it is the first step in the fashioning of the government’s re-election brand.

As a political tool, budgets often contain traps and inverse poison pills. The NDP votes against Budget 2019, and the Liberals can accuse them of being against the enhanced gas tax transfer to cities, or against step one in building universal pharmacare.  The Conservatives vote against it, and the Liberals can take the high ground on skills training, or on housing affordability.

So, there is a political stagecraft in responding to budgets — and in an election year, the stakes are higher. And the audience is not the vote-tallying clerks in the House of Commons — it is the voting public.

The Opposition parties have been given a gift this year.  Ordinarily, the federal budget sucks all political attention for weeks with an irresistible centripetal force, as budget day is followed by regional thematic reannouncements by an army of travelling cabinet ministers, an avalanche of board of trade luncheons, and a barrage of coast-to-coast stakeholder photo-op grip-n-grins. This year, however, Finance Minister Morneau’s opus magnum was virtually overshadowed the day after it was unveiled.  

Competing on launch day with a high-drama Alberta election call, and, more importantly, the House of Commons Justice Committee decision to abort its study of the biggest political controversy to have rocked this government and the opposition reaction to that decision, the finance minister was already fighting for coverage in a crowded news cycle.

But to have the prime minister’s former parliamentary secretary — a well-respected MP, star candidate and community activist — quit caucus the next day? A definitive channel changer. By question period, the Opposition had already left the budget behind, electing to till the more fertile political soil of controversy and scandal. Why debate the finer points of enriched exemptions to the Guaranteed Income Supplement when they could accuse the government of a cover-up on the issue of highest-level government interference in a criminal prosecution of corporate corruption and bribery involving a company with close ties to the governing party? If they could decry his “fake feminist” credentials, as they have been saying. If they could re-energize the controversy that simply refuses to go away.

The SNC-Lavalin scandal has already claimed five major casualties: two senior cabinet ministers, the PM’s former parliamentary secretary, his top political advisor and strategic brain, and the country’s chief public servant. And if that were not enough, one of the departing ministers made it her business to lob another grenade toward the end of budget week through an exclusive interview saying there is far more on this scandal that has yet to be made public.

“There is a political stagecraft in responding to budgets,” writes Yarolsav Baran, “and in an election year, the stakes are higher.” Wikipedia photo

It hardly gets better for opposition parties. They can avoid the usual smug government retorts in Parliament about opposing this beautiful measure or that. The Opposition keeps screaming scandal. They government keeps stepping on rakes in the middle of a mine field.  

And the $26.7 billion dollars in spending that was supposed to underpin the government’s pre-election branding? Poof. Gone.  Nobody is noticing. Yesterday’s news – if it even was.

But there is one remaining hazard the Opposition needs to navigate: How to vote? Nobody genuinely expects opposition parties to support a government budget. It’s not done, unless actively propping up a minority or coalition government.  Opposing a government budget is a table-stakes manoeuvre for opposition parties. The predictable howls of “You voted against this” or “But you opposed that” – given the measures’ omnibus provenance – are usually taken with a large dose of iodized sea salt. And as for the potential need to one-up the Liberals on things like help for first-time homebuyers? The Tories were likely to do so in their election platform anyway — while also speaking to the virtues of a return to fiscal balance.

But what about those inverse poison pills? A better metaphor is perhaps a “dead-man switch”. Every budget has at least one measure where, if a particular party votes against it, it could blow up in their face. While too politically distracted to load this budget up with many such measures, the government did manage to sneak in one hazard that stands apart for the Conservatives: the proposed $45 million anti-racism strategy because the Liberals’ Hail-Mary pass for 2019 is to try to paint Andrew Scheer as an alt-right white supremacist, a threat to diversity and minority rights. Everything Team Scheer does going forward must remain cognizant of this Liberal plan. 

There are two options that allow the Conservatives to sidestep the anti-racism trap. One is to stage another walk-out over the SNC-Lavalin scandal when it’s voting time. Turn a defensive move into a public relations virtue by demonstrating moral outrage over sustained government cover-ups. Side-step the vote trap whilst screaming #LetHerSpeak! Another approach would be to address the trap head on, publicly, and to use procedural tools to carve it out of the overall budget for a separate (positive) vote. There are no tools to do so for the main budget document per se, but this can be done – or at least publicly attempted – with the Budget Implementation bill that follows.  Isolate it, try to pull it out, demand a separate vote for this virtuous measure, and when you fail, at least you are seen to have tried.

Much as the Liberals did with their manoeuvre of tabling the budget early and getting ahead of Opposition filibuster plans on budget day, one of the hallmarks of superior political tradecraft is to anticipate the opponent’s strategy. Foresee the plan, predict the tactics and inoculate accordingly: pre-position the strategy with the media as expected and predictable, and take preventative steps to deprive these manoeuvres of success.  

The Liberals have spent the last two months stepping on land mines. If he wants to capitalize on this state of affairs as we head toward the October election, Mr. Scheer will have to be clever and careful not to step on any of his own.


Yaroslav Baran is an Ottawa-based crisis communications advisor and parliamentary specialist. He is a partner with the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa.