Canada's post-Obama budget

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Let's pray Tuesday (January 27) doesn't ruin the inauguration glow. That's when our government introduces its budget. Just days after Barack Obama is sworn in, Canada is bizarrely headed for one of the most unprecedented moments in our own political history.

I think one word sums up this phenomenon: "opportunity."

But first, let's acknowledge that this continental syncopation is TV-worthy stuff. We had parallel elections, even to the point of duelling television debates. Now, after Obama has promised to usher in a new age, we are at the crossroads.

Our political leaders have to decide whether to fall in step with the world's largest economy and look to a new climate-aware green-energy future or throw their weight behind saving the sinking, nature-blind, tar-sands-fuelled same old same old.

It's been an emotional ride so far: the election itself, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's almost psychopathically unhinged economic statement, the surprise coalition agreement, the near-feudal prorogue and then a new Liberal leader, holiday silence and what has seemed like a big swing of the pendulum back to the status quo.

After all, Michael Ignatieff's "not necessarily coalition, but coalition if necessary" has seemed to indicate a strong lack of interest in anything more than assuming a tough bargaining stance.

And, of course, it seems few days have gone by without the Stephen Harper government making an announcement filled with hubris or stupidity.

One day it's desperate Senate and Supreme Court appointments and the anti-stimulus tax-free savings accounts. The next it's their plan to include "middle-class" tax cuts in the upcoming budget despite the consensus that even Bush's turbo-charged tax cuts were a complete failure at delivering stimulus.

The latest, just days ago: Flaherty announced new government money to automakers on condition they cut workers' wages, but without requiring that they cut excessive executive remuneration or lay off the dinosaur managers who failed to see the world changing and hire some smart environmental scientists instead. Okay, okay, I know that's asking too much. But the point is that new thinking is just as necessary as new government money right now.

We are talking effective new regulations and accountability for everything from credit rating agencies to greenhouse gas producers. And the Harper government isn't going to deliver on these.

But something else much more positive also happened in the last week. It isn't on the scale of Obama ascending to power. Still, Michael Ignatieff finally chose to speak clearly and openly about how he will judge Flaherty's Tuesday performance.

And his three criteria - does the budget protect the vulnerable, save jobs today and create the jobs of the future? - do, at least in broad terms, hit all the right notes.

Naturally, there's a ton of latitude in these well-spoken terms. But they do stand the Obama test. At their best, they speak to the values of justice, inclusiveness and compassion, combined with economic and environmental vision.

Extra kudos to Ignatieff for having the courage to take a further stand, saying he will vote against the inclusion of broad-based tax cuts in the budget, which he says, so wisely, are just a ticket to long-term structural deficits.

Ignatieff is signalling that he is prepared to expose the discredited neo-con fallacies of the Harper crew and make opposition to destructive tax cutting a wedge issue.

By doing so, he is proving that he believes in playing to Canada's intelligence rather than pandering to our ignorance.

Now he needs to take it one step further. The Liberal party is facing a clear moment of choice. Obama has announced that his first international visit will be to our prime minister.

The person welcoming him could be Michael Ignatieff instead of Stephen Harper. And in the handshake between these two men, a continent of opportunity could unfold - or not.

How many of us think our economy can float to safety by hitching itself to a life raft over tar sands tailing ponds? We got a taste of that future when the price of oil hit $140 a barrel. That isn't the recovery we're looking for.

Hit it home, Iggy. Canada doesn't need to meet Obama on the tar sands. We need to meet him on the new green grid that is going to power our economic future.

The times require someone who can sit down with the new U.S. prez and craft a common course that will harmonize and build upon the striking new opportunities he brings to the table. That person has to be the antithesis of Stephen Harper.

A mere raising of hands at the right time could bring two Harvard alumni together to plot a greener, fairer, brighter destiny for all of us on this continent.

I hope, with these inspiring days behind us, that Ignatieff and the Liberal party will appreciate the Obama-esque non-partisan spirit of Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe and choose, with them, to heed the call of this country and do the right thing next week.

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