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A government’s first budget: The day to stand and deliver

Barry Campbell, president of Campbell Strategies and publisher of Parli: The Canadian Political Dictionary, is a former member of Parliament and parliamentary secretary to finance minister Paul Martin.

In this era of extreme transparency, it seems almost quaint to recall that Canadians used to approach budget day with trepidation. Such was the imperative of budget secrecy. Because budget provisions (e.g. changes in tax rates, new funding initiatives) could move markets, advance knowledge of budgetary provisions was out of the question. Budgets were prepared in secret. The circle of those outside government who were consulted was very, very small, and those brought inside the tent for budget deliberations were sworn to secrecy. Spilling the beans could expose one to prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, a distinction usually reserved for spies. A leaked budget could require a delay in tabling of the budget and perhaps necessitate an entire rewrite. A leaked budget could threaten the very survival of a government.

At least the tradition of budget secrecy had a foundation in a genuine concern. By contrast, the long tradition of the minister of finance breaking out a new pair of shoes for budget day has no foundation in anything. The overworked and underpaid researchers in the Library of Parliament looked into this practice and could find no origin for this peculiarly Canadian tradition. The British chancellor of the exchequer traditionally delivers the budget with a glass of whisky at hand to steady the nerves new shoes be damned. So we sober Canadians didn't inherit this practice from the Brits. Perhaps new shoes signal a new beginning, as some have speculated. Old ones shined up denote a solid performance, according to Quebec's finance minister. New Balance sneakers, as worn by Joe Oliver, spoke to wistful fiscal probity. Canadian-made shoes, which Bill Morneau is wearing this week, a signal of a resurgent Canadian manufacturing sector. However, sandals and no socks might befit this transparent era.

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New shoes or not, budgets ain't what they used to be. Provinces used to have to wait until a federal budget was tabled before tabling their own budgets, such was the uncertainty around federal fiscal transfers to the provinces. This time, both Quebec and Ontario have already tabled their budgets. Provinces thankfully have a much clearer sense of the state of federal largesse long before budget day in Ottawa. Budget secrecy? Well, not much. Major federal initiatives are often floated long before budget day to "condition" Canadians to both good (a new program) and bad news (a higher deficit, perhaps). Much of what the Liberals said they would do will be in the budget and this information has already been absorbed and reflected in the markets long before the Minister stands and speaks. There will still be a few surprises (on the good news front) to spike the news coverage and suggest the good headline. Remember though, a budget and a budget speech provide only broad headlines. Like icebergs, most of what's happening lies below the surface in the detailed budget documents. Search there for what wasn't said.

A new government's first budget contains little drama. It is, after all, the vehicle through which the new government's campaign promises are realized. "Sunny ways" doesn't pay the bills; but a first budget confirms direction and tone. Those who hope "the Liberals will come to their senses" and not make good on certain campaign promises will be disappointed. A first budget of a new government is a time to stand and deliver. That said, here is what to watch for: Subtle signals about the pace of spending in light of a volatile economy, new perspectives from time in power and a pivot towards tempering expectations. This government arrived with promises to keep, and the "asks" and expectations have been growing.

Campaigning is different from governing. Governing is about choosing and now we will see clearly what choices have been made. New shoes or not, a finance minister has to be nimble on his feet. Once he sits down after his budget speech there are no secrets – all is laid bare. A successful budget disappears off the front pages in two days: Whether this one is, we will know by Good Friday.

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