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The coalition that wasn't and the jobs budget that won't be

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

For a few moments late last year, without adult supervision, the federal Liberals entered a coalition. Like a bad one-night stand, it was regretted almost immediately.

There was never conviction in their coalition gambit. The Liberals are not natural allies of the New Democratic Party, whose eagerness for a bit of power was exceeded only by their past exclusion from it; nor of the Bloc Québécois, whose ambition to break up Canada was obviously incompatible with the Liberals' desire to keep the country going.

It was, therefore, a marriage of three, completely unnatural and destined to fall apart sooner rather than later - sooner, in this instance, being a day or two after the coalition deal was struck.

The deal did, however, loom superficially plausible enough to scare the Conservative brain trust, who had succeeded in misreading the economy, misreading Parliament and somewhat misreading the results of the last election campaign. In this sense, the coalition threat served the Liberals' purposes briefly, after which it became clear that it was dead.

Political fiction has required, however, that the Liberals keep alive the prospect that the three parties might still co-ordinate their efforts and ambitions to vote non-confidence in the government's budget, thereby precipitating either an election that the Liberals do not want or a handover of power to them, by the Governor-General, that they might.

Neither development will happen, because after suitable fulminations, criticisms, laments and other rhetorical devices, the Liberals will allow the budget to pass.

They will claim that the budget's advantageous measures were all their doing, courtesy of their pre-Christmas pressure, whereas the Conservatives will insist that they had these measures in mind, and needed only a bit of time to perfect them and to understand the full measure of what the new U.S. administration would propose. As any mediator will explain, the best deal is one that allows each side to claim victory, at least to itself and its supporters.

New Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has understood the coalition's inherent weakness from the start, which is why he made clear during the crisis that he was signing on with the lack of enthusiasm of the thoroughly unconvinced. Since then, he has brandished the coalition weapon as though it were a wet noodle.

Mr. Ignatieff understands that the Liberals are in no shape for an election, financially, politically or intellectually. They need time to do their own considerable internal work and, they hope, for the dreadful economy to do its work on Conservative fortunes.

So he and his colleagues will criticize the budget from every angle: Too much stimulus, too little; wrong kind, wrong timing; should have done this, should have done that; the government made the situation worse with tax cuts and transfers to provinces in the past three years - a criticism that is certainly valid, except coming from Liberals who did not fight against those measures.

And then, by means yet to be unveiled, the Liberals will let the budget pass, with its massive stimulus - of course, not massive enough for the NDP and not Quebec-friendly enough for the Bloc Québécois.

The NDP, of course, announced that it would not vote for the budget without having seen it, a testament to its entrenched opposition mentality. And the Bloc has managed, yet again, to find bad treatment coming for Quebec in the form of capping equalization payments for recipient provinces, notably Quebec.

That Quebec will get a whack of money from this stimulus package will be forgotten in the horrible injustice of it all, and that no province has benefited more than Quebec from the transfer of money to resolve the mythical "fiscal imbalance" will be forgotten too.

This budget, many details of which have been outlined in some detail by ministers in advance, will be the granddaddy of all spending budgets, something not a single Conservative would have dreamed possible even four months ago. The new stimulus injected into the economy will grab headlines, but it won't actually do much to create jobs - except for future governments, which will have to try to eliminate the deficits that are about to be created.

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