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The strategists

Pundits want a budget with brains and heart

What message needs to be delivered by the government (as well as the opposition) in today's Throne Speech and tomorrow's budget to instill confidence that the economic crisis is being taken seriously, without causing further panic or alarmism?

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Greg Lyle: Put the country first

It doesn't matter what the government says in this budget. What matters is what Carole Taylor says.

It is clear the Harper government made a grievous error in its economic statement by seeking partisan gain in an economic crisis. Its attempt to advance the war of attrition by taking away government funding of parties almost saw the government defeated just weeks after the last election. Yet while the immediate impact of that error was to throw the government into crisis, the opposition made its own miscalculation with the coalition and the Conservatives were able to rebound outside of Quebec.

Voters have had enough of politicians and their games. Canadians are looking for all parties to put country first and party second. They are looking for a budget that helps Canadians who have already been impacted by the financial crisis and they want a budget that will protect those who have avoided negative effects so far.

Substantively, there needs to be immediate aid for Canadians in economic distress. That assistance should not be just to workers and companies who have been harmed by the slowdown. It also needs to include industries that were already in trouble due to global trends, particularly forestry, which is in trouble in every corner of the country.

The government also needs to be seen to be getting stimulus dollars out the door quickly and in a way that leaves some lasting good. Mayors such as Dianne Watts in Surrey, B.C., have prepared wish lists of projects that can start in weeks and will provide benefits for years. The federal government needs to take up those offers and flow its cash quickly.

How will voters decide whether the budget has met the test? What matters is not what Stephen Harper, Jim Flaherty or Michael Ignatieff say. What matters is what Carole Taylor says. The government set this bar when it established the Economic Advisory Council led by Ms. Taylor. This blue-ribbon panel of eminent Canadians will provide voters with an independent and non-partisan view on the budget. If the Economic Advisory Council supports the budget, the opposition will be hard pressed to oppose it. But if the government ignores the advice of the council, the government's days are likely numbered.

Greg Lyle is managing director of the Innovative Research Group, a public-opinion research and strategy firm based in Toronto

Terrie O'Leary: Get back to basics

Start with a step back to the basic principles of budget making. The foundation of a credible budget must be the restoration of the integrity of the numbers. If the assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny, the budget will be a failure. The uncertainty among the experts about the length and depth of the current recession means that re-establishing the contingency reserve and reinserting the "prudence" buffers are critical.

This budget is the most important since 1995-96. It will contain big actions and large deficits. The period from the fall update to now should have been used to engage Canadians in a broad public-consultation process and real debate about the options and measures. Progress, especially improved consumer confidence, would be more likely if there were a consensus in the country about an economic plan and the measures required to implement it. Currently that consensus does not exist.

This budget must lay out a plan for restoring growth and confidence. The quality of the initiatives matters, not their quantity. An essential ingredient in that plan is a credible track to a return to budget balance. The pitfalls of five-year forecasting were evident in the lack of progress on deficit elimination from 1975 to 1995. While a return to balance may take five years, a fiscal track that shows most of the progress based on economic growth and occurring in the fifth year should be unacceptable. The government that takes Canadians back into a deficit has a fiduciary responsibility to restore the nation's finances.

These extraordinary times require the opposition parties to take their responsibilities seriously. Knee-jerk and preordained opposition will not do. If the budget, on balance, moves in the right direction they should support it, even if the mix of measures is less than ideal in their view. If the budget is as deeply flawed as the fall statement, the economic crisis places on the opposition parties an obligation to provide an alternative set of options, including a redesigned coalition that inspires more confidence among Canadians than the fall version did, or an accord on the measures to be introduced.

Terrie O'Leary was chief of staff to Liberal finance minister Paul Martin from 1993 to 1998.

Leslie Campbell: Show some empathy

If a budget and stimulus package is to instill confidence among voters and not further stir the parliamentary pot, the government should admit that it underestimated the scale of the downturn, show empathy to a public scared for their jobs and retirement nest eggs and demonstrate some respect for a combined opposition which commands more seats in Parliament than it does.

The ideological battle lines are quite clear -- the NDP wants to protect the vulnerable, save homes from foreclosure, and protect jobs -- particularly in the "real" economy such as manufacturing. It wants infrastructure spending, tightened regulation and modest tax benefits in the lower income categories.

The Liberals will be easier to please since Michael Ignatieff is seeking the flimsiest of fig leaves to cover his retreat from the coalition deal. Even a sniff of gaining power is an aphrodisiac that overwhelms any desire to co-operate with the NDP. No one should be expecting a no-confidence vote and coalition government.

The NDP will look like a cuckolded lover after the Liberals fail to defeat the budget. It would be better to break off the relationship now and remind the public of which party provides real opposition. Rather than wallow in the betrayal, the NDP should get to work on building a more durable centre-left alternative that includes those Liberals bound to be discouraged by a return to co-operation with Stephen Harper.

Many Canadians, even if not pining for an election, get a degree of satisfaction from seeing the Prime Minister squirm. Strenuous and principled opposition forces the government to be more attuned to the opinion of voters and encourages the exploration of all policy options, not just the ones ideologically comfortable for the current PM and cabinet.

Perhaps Mr. Harper's route to a win-win scenario is to harmonize Canada's fiscal plan with U.S. President Barack Obama's economic plan to the degree possible. Mr. Obama promises tax credits for the lower income brackets and green infrastructure spending -- a plan the public and the opposition can embrace.

Leslie Campbell is a former chief of staff to federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin and assistant to Manitoba NDP Leader Gary Doer. He is now a Senior Associate at the National Democratic Institute in Washington.

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