It was shortly after 4 o’clock, the House of Commons was set, the galleries were full, the ornate lectern had been positioned on the Finance Minister’s desk and the pages had handed out copies of the minister’s tome to each of the MPs in attendance, but before Jim Flaherty could stand and deliver his speech, NDP MP Yvon Godin stood on a point of order. On page one of the French edition of the budget, the bald and moustachioed former miner complained, there was a bullet-point that was written in English. For shame, and so forth.
“I feel it is against the rules of the House,” Mr. Godin declared, perhaps hoping to have the entire budget ruled out of order.
The Conservatives groaned and the Speaker promised to look into and with that the excitement passed and Mr. Flaherty was called on to stand and table the budget and receive the customary standing ovation for having completed this necessary formality.
“Mr. Speaker, nearly 150 years ago, Canada was founded with fiscal responsibility as its cornerstone,” Mr. Flaherty thereafter began.
“Hear! Hear!” called the Conservative benches.
“The men and women who carved this great country out of the wilderness simply called it ‘good government,’ ” Mr. Flaherty explained.
Yes, that and peace and order. The perfectly unexciting motto on which this country is based.
“That’s what Minister of Finance John Rose was talking about when he stood before this assembly to deliver Canada’s first budget speech in 1868,” the country’s 37th Finance Minister recalled. “He said, ‘I say that we ought to be most careful in our outlay, and consider well every shilling we expend.’ ”
The Conservative benches applauded.
“Now, that’s just old-fashioned English for old-fashioned common sense,” Mr. Flaherty mused.
“Hear! Hear! called the Conservative benches again.
Sir John Rose, the future 1st Baronet of Montreal, was actually our second finance minister. The first, Alexander Galt, resigned on the third day of the first Parliament. So it was that Mr. Rose delivered the first budget speech on the afternoon of Saturday, April 28th, 1868. (Mr. Flaherty is not the first finance minister to recall the words of Mr. Rose—Mitchell Sharp quoted from him at length in 1967.)
That first speech was a bit of a dirge and went on for so long that an intermission was required in the middle (presumably for dinner). It measures nearly 30 single-spaced pages and is leaden with numbers and figures and explanation. (Only later would Finance Ministers realize that no one was actually interested in the math.) But Mitchell Sharp would call Mr. Rose’s appeal to watch every shilling to be the enduring vow of finance minister’s past and future and within that first budget speech are timeless bromides. (Like Mr. Flaherty, it seems that Mr. Rose concluded his speech with a quote from Thomas D’Arcy McGee.)
“I have no fears whatever as to the future of this country,” he assured the House.
“Hear! Hear!” agreed the assembled.
“With the same industry, the same thrift, the same indisposition to rush into rash and heedless enterprises, characterizing us in the future, as have characterized us in the past, I think the prospect before us is the reverse of discouraging.”
The reverse of discouraging! An indisposition to rush into rash and heedless enterprises! On such stuff does a nation casually stroll with a relaxed gait into the future. And on basically similar premises did Mr. Flaherty entertain the crowds today.
“Boring is good,” he had, during an appearance in front of reporters during the embargoed briefing, quoted the former Ontario premier Bill Davis as saying.
The budget itself was entitled, “The Road to Balance”—a nod to Cormac McCarthy’s famous tale of managerial caution and maintaining a good diet—and within the minister’s speech were the soothing adjectives, nouns and cliches of reassurance. Common sense. Strong. Sound. Consistent. Common sense (again). Sticks to the principles. The responsible way. Prudence. Stay the course. Stay the course (again). Safe, responsible resource development. Fiscal restraint and good management. Another prudent step.
Mr. Flaherty told reporters that there were no “flashing spending” or “baubles” to be found here. Which is perhaps to say that the $10 million set aside to “improve and expand snowmobile and recreational trails across the country,” an investment that builds on the $25 billion committed in 2009, is an important and integral investment of the kind that a federal government should prioritize. (It would be alluded to in the speech within the section entitled, “Environment.”)
The flashiest aspect would be the restatement of a commitment to balance the budget in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. But then even that much is apparently to be considered fairly unremarkable.
It was this commitment that earned Mr. Flaherty the first standing ovation for something other than arriving or tabling the requisite paperwork. And it was his explanation of how that drew the first grumbles from the opposition.
“We did not do this on the backs of ordinary Canadians or Canadians in need,” he said, stirring the other side of the House, “or at the expense of our provinces and territories.”
The Conservatives would respond to the grumbles with a standing ovation and the two sides would then trade guffaws and cheers as Mr. Flaherty proceeded to explain precisely how the government had not gone about balancing the books.
“Rather,” he concluded, “we did this by getting our own fiscal house in order.”
So billions will be saved with the sort of effort you might expend to straighten things up before company arrives.
The parliamentary budget officer might not be able to sort out exactly how and to what effect, but the government’s spending on its own programs and services will decrease (“Direct program expenses are expected to decrease as a percentage of GDP, reaching a historic low of 5.4 per cent of GDP in 2017–18,” the budget document explains) and you might not even notice. It is something like an experiment in boring: how much can the federal government reduce its spending before any notices? How much can be quietly cut before it hurts?
There have been grumbles about the Experimental Lakes Area and science libraries and recently veterans were able to at least briefly challenge the government’s efforts. But perhaps, like Mr. Godin’s lament for the English bullet-point, complaints will be only briefly noted before the business of the nation proceeds.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014