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Jack Layton, Conservatives and the Budget: Same Script, Different Month

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Opposition politicians whining about a government budget isn't new, its part of their job and its what they do best.

Nor was there much that was new in Harper's budget. It didn't contain any dramatic surprises; even the settlement with Quebec on the HST issue had been anticipated. It remains to be seen though exactly what that deal looks like and how it compares to arrangements made with B.C. and Ontario.

As to be expected, we were treated to vintage Jack Layton who made the rounds complaining that Harper wasn't listening to the NDP and that they hadn't bent to his will and included items from the NDP platform. Earth to Jack, you lost, get over it. You will not have another chance to be the Prime Minister for four more years. It is time to put the "If I were prime minister" election stump speech away.

A month after the election, the opposition is still using the same tired old lines that Harper wasn't elected by the majority of Canadians. This conveniently ignores the fact that even greater numbers didn't vote for the NDP or the Liberals. I wonder just how magnanimous Jack and his NDP and union cohorts would have been if the situation was reversed and he was in power?

Similarly, continuing to complain that the Conservatives didn't announce their health care plans or allocate new funds in advance of the accord negotiations is simply more opposition posturing. What government in its right mind goes into negotiations with the provinces telling them in advance how much they can expect and for what purpose? That would be like handing McGuinty a blank cheque. At least this way the provinces will have to get a bit creative and come up with ways to better manage health care in their own province before counting federal dollars.

The Opposition continues their pre-election day complaints that the Conservatives didn't announce how they were going to save $4 billion in operating costs. This comes as no surprise as on this point they might get some traction in the days ahead. However, they conveniently overlook the fact that the opposition parties derailed the review process by forcing an election. If they had not done so, they might have had a better idea by now as to what the government plans to do.

I suspect that in the days ahead they will have plenty of ammunition to hit the government with, as saving $4 billion is not going to be easy. Flaherty still maintains that this can be done by acting like the private sector and reviewing ways to improve productivity. But this is not the private sector, it is big government. It will be interesting to see how the government plans on doing this.

I for one don't think new technology and attrition will be able to give them the savings they need. If that becomes the case, where then do they find the required savings? Anyone who has worked in government for any length of time knows there is quite a bit of waste. There are always programs that have outlived their usefulness or which have expanded over the years well beyond their original mandate and they receive significant funding. Will the Treasury Board review seek out these programs and what will be their fate?

If they do eventually look at program cuts, I hope the ministers will not leave it to senior bureaucrats to suggest what should be cut. After all, they will be protecting their own turf and will try to keep the number of person years reporting to them as high as possible. Perhaps the cuts should start at the top at the senior management level. One of the problems with the Paul Martin cuts was that they impacted so heavily on the mid-level and junior ranks of the civil service, the people who actually do most of the work. Nor has the government yet explained how attrition will impact on these levels of the civil service.

And while the Conservatives are looking to cut costs on the departmental side, how about cutting the number of ministers on the political side? Do we really need 11 Ministers of State and one Associate Minister? Anytime you create a new Minister of State position, you have to fund it, provide political and bureaucratic staff, accommodation, and equipment. Their collective jobs depend on accomplishing things on behalf of the government and you can rest assured that they will come up with all sorts of creative ways to spend the taxpayer's money. All of which will make saving $4 billion that much more difficult.

The "summer of discontent" hasn't started yet, but we can rest assured that the NDP, staffed by the unions that support them, will be out ramping up the rhetoric to protect union jobs at any cost. A hot summer will probably get much hotter and make for an interesting fall session when the House returns.

Canadians had an entire election campaign to make up their mind on this budget. They did and re-elected the Conservatives. It should come as no surprise to the opposition then that Harper will move ahead with his plans and his vision as to where he wants to take the country. Now all we need is for the opposition to change their talk points and update their speeches as they try to engage the hearts and minds of Canadians over the coming months.

Keith Beardsley's political blog can be found at www.atory01.com

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