Watching the Harper government serve up a pre-election budget has become a drama in the Theatre of the Absurd. That's because -- as Tim Harper wrote last week in the Toronto Star -- for Stephen Harper, politics trumps math:
The new Conservative math is political math.
There’s another name for it. It’s a shell game.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver appears ready to arbitrarily set a future oil price — one that neither he nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper can predict — that will allow him to proceed with voter-friendly promises in an election year.
Even as he pushed the budget date into April, he told a Calgary audience Thursday that he will balance this budget, then run surpluses in the years to come, rising to over $13 billion by 2019-20.
The Harperites find themselves in this predicament because they predicted a surplus based on $81a barrel oil. And they spent the surplus before it materialised. Moreover, they've based their whole re-election strategy on a balanced budget and tax cuts from their non-existent surplus:
They have to balance the budget so they can make good on a promise Harper made on a chilly early April day in Vaughan almost four years ago — the doubling of the limit for Tax Free Savings Account contributions to $10,000, a vote-friendly initiative that was contingent on the deficit being eliminated.
In the short term, there is a cost. The finance department has estimated that the existing TFSA program, introduced in 2009, cost the government more than $400 million in foregone revenue in 2013.
But that figure will be in the tens of billions when accounts are drawn on in the years to come.
Similarly, an adult tax fitness credit is tied to the balanced budget.
Then there is the matter of other pre-election spending, such as money that should go to veterans and the ongoing costs of an air mission against Islamic State in northern Iraq.
There is an old adage about not counting your chickens before they hatch. The same rule applies to surpluses.
When former MP Bill Casey went to Mr. Harper to complain that he had altered the Atlantic Accord, the prime minister told him that the words in the accord "mean what I say they mean." The same rule seems to apply to budget numbers.