Jim Flaherty's Olympic budget

The finance minister apparently plans a low-key budget.

Blair Gable/Reuters

“Basically, they’re keeping their powder dry for 2015.” —Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets

Jim Flaherty has tried to bury budgets before, and it always works until it doesn’t. When the government won its majority mandate in 2011, the finance minister launched a new tradition: on budget day, reveal to the world a document that includes all kinds of shiny goodies and happy language, and a future that is always brighter, and a few annexes of financial tables. Then, under cover of legislative darkness, sneak an omnibus bill into Parliament. The budget bill is never only about a budget. Among hundreds of pages of proposed legislative change are some budgetary measures, to be sure, but also plenty of other things. People always notice, eventually. About a year ago, a sustained protest, partly aimed at the government’s penchant for the omnibus, caught everyone’s attention.

This morning, The Globe and Mail‘s Bill Curry launched a season of budget speculation by predicting the finance minister’s new approach to fiscal planning: bury it from day one. The theory goes that Flaherty will table his 2014 budget in the House of Commons during the week of Feb. 10. The Sochi Olympics open on Feb. 7. With the nation consumed by dreams of Olympic glory and, if they’re lucky, a renewed claim to global hockey supremacy, the government can safely table what’s apparently going to be a rather boring document.

So, yes, a low-key budget day this year. Next year, when an election is on the way and budget surpluses are on the way and a new mandate beckons? That’s when the government will pull out all the fireworks and doodads and bells and whistles it can muster, all in hopes of whipping the public into a frenzy of appreciation for their Conservative masters.

Then again, budget day is never really the main event anymore. The potemkin document paraded around Parliament by the finance minister is only useful insofar as it launches a year’s worth of rhetoric. Budget bills, which always follow, aren’t really about budgets. They’re about broader legislative change. Flaherty may deliver a low-key budget speech focused on slashing whatever remains of the federal deficit, but don’t think that’s the end of it. Watch for the omnibus. Don’t miss it.


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