Will They Budge(t)?

5 minute read

It is often said that the hardest job in politics is being the opposition leader. No one knows who you are and it is hard to get attention – at least for the reasons you want. Today’s federal budget, the first in two years, gives opposition parties and their leaders a platform to share their vision with Canadians. Once the budget is tabled in the House of Commons, opposition leaders will respond with their party’s critique. An effective response – one worthy of a so-called government in waiting – should demonstrate an alternative plan for an improved budget. So what is at stake for each leader? What are they looking to exploit in the budget? 

Budgets are more than fiscal plans, they are also political documents. Budget delivery and response is an exercise in dueling political narratives, so context matters. The overarching narrative that Canada is currently smack dab in the middle of the third wave of COVID-19 is challenging on both sides of the chamber. Being too critical of the government’s pandemic spending could have political ramifications for opposition parties that are already lagging in the polls. And, articulating the nuance of insufficient investments or inadequate programs in areas of shared priorities, such as childcare, is like threading a needle.

Conservative Party 

For the party that considers itself to be the steward of the public purse. As proud fiscal hawks, budget day is an important one for Conservatives. So much so that some Tories started counting the days since the last budget – it’s 762 days to be exact. What does Erin O’Toole have to do to impress Canadians today and what is he looking for in the budget? 

Before his pre-budget meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau, O’Toole wrote a letter to the prime minister stating that the government must bring in a clear plan for reopening the Canadian economy. This includes: 

  • A plan to create jobs;
  • A clear fiscal anchor; and, 
  • A plan to return to balance with minimal taxation. 

With slumping polling numbers and a personal disapproval rating over 30%, O’Toole has to find a way to connect with Canadians if he hopes to be the next prime minister. That is why today he needs to focus his messaging on creating hope and protecting Canadians’ jobs. He needs to appeal to women under 45, a demographic with which he’s been struggling to connect. His response to the budget should focus on how women, in particular, have been hardest hit by the pandemic and how a Conservative government would support them. 

Bloc Québécois 

In typical Bloc fashion, Yves-Francois Blanchet has been clear about his party’s priorities for the budget. In February, Blanchet and his finance critic, Gabriel Ste-Marie, launched a consultation tour to hear from Quebecers and regional industries about their key issues. He is calling for:

  • Increased support for seniors; 
  • Relief funding for struggling sectors like tourism and aviation; and, 
  • No-strings-attached funding for health transfers to the provinces. 

Unlike O’Toole, the Bloc support is strong and they would likely pick up a few more seats if an election were held today. Blanchet would like to see support for key industries in Quebec and guarantees that relief funds will not go to the oil or nuclear industries. They should instead support the health transfers to strengthen hospital networks. Given the government’s support of the aviation industry announced last week, the Bloc’s expectations shouldn’t be too difficult to meet. Their support would give the Trudeau government  enough votes in Parliament to pass the budget and prevent an election.


After a somewhat rocky convention, Jagmeet Singh and the NDP find themselves in a familiar but precarious position. Singh made it clear that the NDP will not force an election until the pandemic has ended. He is, however, frustrated with the government noting “Our support for the actual budget is not probably a concern for the Liberals, because they want an election. They want an excuse to go to an election.” Despite their sour mood towards the government, the NDP is still willing to work with the Liberals to advance key party policy planks in areas of common interests. For this budget, Singh is looking for: 

  • Funding for a national childcare program and universal pharmacare; 
  • New tax hikes on the wealthy and those corporations that profited the most during the pandemic; and, 
  • A stronger federal role for on-the-ground COVID-19 vaccine administration. 

The Trudeau government has been telegraphing their commitment to a national child-care plan dating back to the last throne speech and fall economic statement. The NDP would add that the Liberals have actually been talking about childcare for almost 30 years. Following the recent Liberal convention, Trudeau and Canada’s first female finance minister appear ready to fulfil this promise to help women re-enter the workforce in a post-pandemic world. Recent polling from Abacus Data shows that while many Canadians still haven’t formed an opinion of Jagmeet Singh, those that have like him. For Singh, this budget is an opportunity to show Canadians who he is and how the NDP is fighting for them. 

What’s Next? 

With support from the NDP and the Bloc likely, the budget won’t send Canadians to the polls anytime soon. Pandemic fatigue is widespread, and punting election timing down the road will give the Trudeau government time to support provincial vaccine rollout and implement budget measures to prime the economy for recovery. The opposition is going to have to tread carefully, balancing criticism of the budget with constructive propositions.

For Erin O’Toole, this is a vital test. He must use his time in the spotlight to highlight how a Conservative government would better support the economy and those who have lost their jobs, especially women. For the Bloc, it will be about demonstrating their support for struggling industries and arguing they extracted increased funding for the provinces, namely Quebec. Meanwhile, Jagmeet Singh and the NDP will continue to argue it is because of the NDP that this minority Parliament has supported Canadians in need and pressured the Liberals to finally invest in a national childcare program – a defining issue of the pandemic and the illusive recovery 

All leaders have a lot at stake. Reaction to the budget will be closely watched by voters who are struggling amid the pandemic. Canadians are tired of the pandemic and tired of negative politics. They’re looking for hope and leaders who provide a clear vision to get Canada out of this pandemic. Budget day performances will be scrutinized this week, but the ultimate judgement rests with voters in the next election, whenever that might be.

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