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Don Martin: Gusher of Liberal spending won't put out the fire in this dumpster

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The goal of Budget 2024 was simple enough: Put out the raging fire in the dumpster this government has become.

Will it work before the election? Probably not.

A Hail Mary rehash of the greatest hits from the government’s three-week travelling pony-show, the budget takes aim at reversing the party’s popularity plunge in the under-40 set.

It’s a last-ditch pitch in case the NDP, clearly wearying of playing tagalong to such a toxic dance partner, pushes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into an election every poll says he cannot win.

But while this single-minded attempt to help a struggling demographic would’ve been interesting three years ago when a new Trudeau mandate was beginning, it’s now just a mix of desperation and aspiration as the whiff of electoral defeat looms large over the Liberal party.

Cynicism is baked in as voters tune out the noise from a government where the prospect of four million new houses is just the latest version of the two billion trees they failed to plant from 2017.

Okay, so give Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland this much: She managed to keep the deficit inside $40 billion despite a $53-billion spending surge over the next five years. That was courtesy of a major capital gains tax increase on the upper crust.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland holds a press conference in the media-lockup prior to tabling the Federal Budget in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 16, 2024 (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

But it’s all just the usual fun-with-figures government behaviour where forecasts of spending restraint and controlled deficits are eclipsed by a new set of much-worse projections, sometimes within months.

And Freeland has, as always, stretched the implementation of most multi-billion-dollar announcements far beyond the reasonable life expectancy of this Liberal government into a first or possibly even second Conservative mandate.

To be fair, though, her budget does not have the dubious distinction of being the worst of its kind in 42 years, as former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge grimly predicted on CTV Power Play this week.

There are plenty of good, albeit unaffordable, ideas on its 416 pages. And it sets a sneaky trap for the Conservatives in the plan to boost capital gains taxation on the upper crust.

By hitting wealthy boomers in their stock market and real estate windfalls, the Liberals have made it very difficult for the Conservatives to advocate repealing the tax hike.

If leader Pierre Poilievre pledges to reverse the tax on the wealthiest investors, it will surely alienate millennials who believe those coddled boomers living in their multiple houses should be paying far higher taxes.

But we’re lurching into the weeds of early election strategy here.

The bottom line is this budget simply can’t turn farmer fields into residential basements at anything close to the warp speed required to have an impact on real estate affordability by the time wannabe homeowners vote in 17 months.

The only poll-reversing salvage strategy is to hope the targeted voters pay attention to the hopes and future dreams the Liberals dangle in their spreadsheets, which is a very faint hope for a demographic so preoccupied with the daily grind.

Perhaps the only enduring legacy of Budget 2024 will be how it was released.

There can be little doubt future governments will seize on the promotional advantage of having their big-deal announcements stretch from a three-hour budget day splash into a three-week news cycle. Budget secrecy is now a relic of the past. And that’s fine.

But peel away the fluff and you’re left with Trudeau’s final appeal to an angry and frustrated demographic who still might not switch back and vote Liberal, if they vote at all. If the prime minister is counting on the millennial and Gen Z generations to vote them back into power, a parliamentary wipeout beckons.

So farewell then to a budget with considerable policy substance that’s being tossed to the next government to implement, most of it financed with mega-dollars dribbled out far into a post-Trudeau future.

For the besieged Liberal party, it’s not likely to deliver as a mission accomplished. Budget 2024 still leaves them stuck in the dumpster fighting fires.

That’s the bottom line.

IN DEPTH

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