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Tories pledge $1.5-billion for job training

Globe and Mail Update

OTTAWA — Further departing from convention on pre-budget secrecy, the Harper government announced today it will offer $1.5-billion in new training funds for laid-off workers in its January 27 stimulus package.

The disclosure by Conservative Human Resources Minister Diane Finley – on CTV's Question Period – was the latest in a series of carefully co-ordinated leaks of the content of Tuesday's budget.

Over the past three days, half a dozen members of the Tory cabinet have publicly revealed nearly $6-billion of its contents. More is expected to be divulged Tuesday by Transport and Infrastructure Minister John Baird.

The unprecedented strategy is to cement public support for the budget and, by extension, for the minority Harper government, leaving no reason for the Official Opposition Liberals to vote against it and defeat them.

“The goal seems to be to delay the executioner,” Liberal finance critic John McCallum said. The NDP has already said it will oppose the budget and the Bloc Quebecois has set the conditions of its support extremely high.

The Conservatives say they're trying to make sure their entire budget gets publicity rather than risk measures being overlooked in the torrent of budget-day spending news. Also, they argue, leaking budget measures was standard practice under the two Liberal governments that preceded theirs.

“The budget hasn't been all kept [secret] for budget day in more than a decade,” one senior official said.

Still, leaks in the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin era tended to be imprecise hints transmitted through anonymous sources – not public statements by cabinet ministers as the Tories have done.

“I've been look looking at these things for thirty years and can never remember the specifics of any measure being announced in a fairly formal way like this,” Toronto Dominion chief economist Don Drummond, a former federal finance official, said.

Ms. Finley said the $1.5-billion in budget cash the Tories have planned for job training as the recession deepens will assist both those eligible to collect employment insurance as well as those who don't qualify.

“A lot of people are going to be losing their jobs,” she told CTV. “We want to be sure we're helping them.”

Another $500-million in training funds will be aimed at what Ottawa calls “long-tenured workers – those who have worked at the same job for a long time and have a narrow set of skills but are not close to retirement age.

On Saturday, Ms. Finley also announced more than $2-billion in budget cash to build new public housing and renovate existing units. About $1-billion would fund renovations of current public housing – a boon for building trades workers – leaving $600-million to build more on-reserve aboriginal homes; $400-million for extra seniors housing and $75-million for additional residences for the disabled.

“Construction startups are slowing down across the country so there's a lot of people in the construction trades that are going to be available for work,” Ms. Finley said in an interview.

Separately, Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled Saturday that the Tory budget will include permanent tax cuts for individuals and business – not just temporary levy reductions to revive the flagging economy.

“I think that if we're talking about tax cuts, these measures in most cases have to be permanent to be effective,” the Conservative Leader said in an interview with Montreal's LaPresse newspaper. He said the reductions will be modest.

Also, a government source said the Tories will also boost funding for graduate student scholarships, the Canada Health Infoway initiative to accelerate a move to electronic health records and the Council for Innovation.

In other recent leaks, the Tories announced they will create a $1-billion fund to help farming, forestry and mining towns weather the downturn.

The barrage of advance previews of the budget started last Thursday when the Harper Tories announced they would run deficits totalling $64-billion over two years. The revelation, seen as an attempt to get the bad news out of the way, also disclosed the government expects it will take five years to climb out of deficit.

With a report from Daniel Leblanc

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