The sound coming out of Conservative backrooms on Parliament Hill in the hours following the presentation of this week’s Ontario budget was that of a collective sigh of relief.
From Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer’s perspective, his party dodged a pre-election bullet on Thursday.
By all indications, Premier Doug Ford’s fiscal plan will provide the Trudeau Liberals with less lethal ammunition to use against their Conservative rivals in the upcoming federal campaign than they had hoped for.
Yes, the fact that Ontario will remain in the red beyond Ford’s current term in office is liable to blunt Conservative Party of Canada attacks on the ruling Liberals for accumulating deficit upon deficit since they have taken power.
But it will also make it more difficult for Trudeau to turn the tables on Scheer and predict that the election of a Conservative government would result in a fiscal bloodbath.
But the full impact on most Ontarians of the measures sketched out on Thursday will not have been felt by the time Scheer and his Conservatives go door-knocking next fall.
In the immediate, the first batch of post-budget media analysis has left federal Conservative strategists with an embarrassment of riches to counter the Liberals’ post-budget apocalyptic scenarios.
Take this summation by my columnist colleague Martin Regg Cohn: “There are no savage cuts in the first Ford-Fedeli budget, which could easily have been delivered by former premier Dalton McGuinty back when he belatedly discovered austerity.”
Or this one from Globe and Mail columnist Tim Kiladze: “If anything, it looks more like something that would come from the Liberals he replaced — the ones he swore had been reckless with the province’s finances.”
Those comments were not written to complement the Ford Tories but to highlight the gap between their rhetoric and their actual budget.
It is hard to find in the rather sunny outlook upon which Ford’s government has based its first budget much evidence of the premier’s gloomy contentions that the provincial Liberals have left the province on the fiscal brink or that the federal carbon tax will plunge Ontario into a recession.
The contrast between Ford’s talk and his government’s budget walk will likely displease many fiscal conservatives. They had been given cause to expect a dramatic departure from the fiscal policy of the previous Liberal governments. But from Scheer’s electoral perspective, it comes as close as it could have to a do-no-harm budget.
In the lead-up to Thursday, the Trudeau Liberals had all but telegraphed their strategy of coming out swinging against the Ontario budget.
They even took the rare step of dispatching two MPs to Queen’s Park so as to have boots on the ground as soon as the budget fight got underway.
On Friday, the Liberals doubled down with a Parliament Hill news conference featuring four Ontario MPs — including three ministers. Labour Minister Patti Hajdu alleged the Ford budget was inspired by “the politics of cruelty.”
Such a federal deployment on the occasion of a provincial budget is more than unusual; it is just about unprecedented.
Just a few weeks ago the first Coalition Avenir Québec budget came and went with nary a peep from Parliament Hill.
The introduction of Quebec’s contentious Bill 21 — and the attending CAQ decision to override both the Canadian and Quebec charters on the way to removing the right of some public servants to wear religious symbols — was also greeted with a lot more federal restraint.
Mind you, it is hard to think of circumstances under which the sight of Liberal MPs lurking in the hallways of the Quebec national assembly in wait of delivering a hit on a major provincial policy announcement would not backfire.
Ford was always expected to be front and centre in the election narrative of the Trudeau Liberals.
There is a reason why the latter have been relatively restrained in the face of Alberta Conservative Leader Jason Kenney’s strategy of consistently associating outgoing NDP Premier Rachel Notley with the prime minister the better to score hits on his main rival on the provincial campaign trail.
Trudeau’s team is poised to similarly link Scheer with Ford on the hustings next fall. At this juncture the Ontario premier is both less popular and more polarizing than the federal Conservative leader.
In Ontario, the SNC-Lavalin crisis has cost Trudeau his pre-election edge on the Conservatives.
If the Liberals were to lose Canada’s largest province next fall, they would lose the election.
A take-no-prisoner battle is in the offing.
But from the strategic perspective of the federal Liberals, Thursday’s Ontario budget was a disappointment.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert