Ideally, Liberal strategists would prefer to wait until spring, giving the Harper government more time to accumulate baggage, wrestle with a weakening economy and produce a promised restraint budget packed with painful spending cuts.
One word comes to mind here- NIMBLE. I would argue that the Liberals abandon these long term plans, or more correctly, adapt to events and be pragmatic. The above premise probably sounded wise at one point, but it's now full of risk and uncertainty.
Conventional wisdom holds that the next budget is where the government must make the tough choices, unpopular choices. The last budget, mostly a free pass, the 2011 budget will be where the deep cuts come and with that dissent and dissatisfaction. I believed this theory, but I have serious doubts now as events change.
Most economic forecasts for this year NOW project better growth than Flaherty budgeted for in the spring. As well, we just had the first quarter deficit numbers released, figures which every Liberal should pay attention consider:
Ottawa's budgetary shortfall narrowed in the first quarter of the fiscal year, the federal deficit dropping to $7.2 billion from the $12.5 billion it reached a year earlier.
That puts the government on track to meet its prediction of a $49.2 billion deficit for 2010-11, though there's still plenty of reason to keep an wary eye on the global economy, the Finance department said Friday.
Flaherty is wise to be cautious, politically and philosophically. Three months does not a year make, but it does start to confirm what economists are projecting. Extrapolate the quarter out to the year, and you see a deficit of around 29 billion. Even if growth slows, there is still AMPLE room for Flaherty to come in well below what the government projected. Fast forward to the spring, are Liberals really that keen on a budget which allows a much rosier picture? There is also evidence that the government is already reigning in spending- can Flaherty argue that our position is so much improved, the huge cuts assumed aren't required?
I think the situation NOW allows for the possibility that the 2011 budget won't be the "meet your maker" budget everybody assumes. Instead, it could well be a relatively positive presentation, that puts the government in a favourable light, able managers. Canadians are expecting huge deficits. While Flaherty would be foolish to predict anything, I'm sure the government is pleased and sees upside. Something like "because of our sound management and prudent policy, I am pleased to tell Canadians that our fiscal house is much improved since the 2010 budget..."
The key thing for the Liberals is not to get tunnel vision with this spring strategy, but keep a fluid perspective. As the picture unfolds, nobody should be surprised if, in fact, the spring budget is the preferred election scenario for the Conservatives, not the Liberals.