Expect Tories to hit trail with budget

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Sun Media, Friday, March 25, 2011

The Conservatives may not be defeated on their budget when the House votes on a Liberal confidence motion Friday, but they sure plan to run on it.

"Absolutely," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the morning after his Tuesday budget, which will never get to a vote.

"After I got over my initial surprise of Jack Layton announcing that he was going to oppose the budget," Flaherty I thought: 'What a wonderful opportunity to travel across the country, saying to Canadians, do you support this budget or not?' "

It doesn't matter that it won't be voted up or down. As long as you can present a budget, you get to run on it.

That's the Tories' dominant media frame for an election they insist they didn't want, but from which it appears they have the most to gain--the possibility of crossing into majority territory.

The Harper Conservatives will run on competence, the economy and the breaks for the middle class in Flaherty's budget.

Like the $500 tax credit for children's arts programs. That certainly gets the attention of parents with sons in piano lessons and daughters in ballet class. This will play very well in the suburbs such as the 905 belt around Toronto.

Like funding for caregivers with a tax credit of up to $2,000 for voters caring for dependent relatives. This also plays well in the 'burbs, as well as pre-empting the Liberal theme of families first.

Like the top up of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, $50 a month or $600 a year for single seniors, mostly widows; and $70 a month or $840 a year for couples. Nearly 700,000 Canadians will benefit. Seniors are a core Conservative constituency and they vote.

Like forgiving student loans of up to $40,000 for doctors and $20,000 for nurses who agree to locate in remote or rural communities. As in the Prairies, a key region in the Conservative base.

Like funding for volunteer firefighters. That drills right down into communities.

Like the one-year holiday from employment insurance premiums for companies hiring new staff. There are more than half a million small businesses in Canada, and their owners will be very happy with this.

The Liberals have another narrative--scandal, abuse of power and trust, or the lack of it in Stephen Harper, the guy with the hidden agenda. Lock up your daughters.

So the struggle for the media agenda comes down to the Tories on competence and the Liberals on trust.

For the Liberals to make this work they'll have to go deeply and heavily negative, and throw so much mud at Harper that some of it will eventually stick.

This is what they've been doing for weeks, from Bev Oda and the word "not" to Bruce Carson and his alleged lobbying on behalf of his young girlfriend.

Up to now, it hasn't made much of a dent in the Tories' double-digit lead in the polls. That may be partly because of the disconnect between what goes on in Ottawa and what goes on in people's lives.

It may also be that the Conservatives have inoculated themselves with a huge ad buy, in everything from Oprah to hockey. Their most effective ad is a 60-second positive spot narrated by Harper, in which he hangs out with his kids and says Canada's best days are still ahead.

He doesn't look scary. He looks like a hardworking dad.

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