Joe Oliver refuses to provide deadline details for delayed budget

'Look, I don't want to get into negative hypotheticals,' finance minister says when asked how late the government would wait

OTTAWA – Finance Minister Joe Oliver is refusing to provide a deadline for the Conservative government’s now-delayed federal budget, saying he doesn’t want to get into “negative hypotheticals.”

On Thursday, Oliver took the unusual step of postponing the release of the country’s budget until at least April, giving the government more time to evaluate just how badly falling oil prices could damage the Canadian economy.

On Friday in Toronto, Oliver refused to speculate on exactly when the budget would come down.

“Look, I don’t want to get into negative hypotheticals,” he said when asked how late the government would be willing to wait.

“We’ve decided that we won’t issue the budget earlier than April because of the current instability and we’ll make a decision as we approach that date.”

While rare, federal governments have in past years waited beyond March 31, the last day of the fiscal year, to deliver budgets.

Thursday’s deferral comes amid a flurry of economic warnings about the net impact of lower crude prices on oil exports, including mass layoffs in the Alberta oilpatch.

Oliver also defended the government’s decision to unveil a multibillion-dollar suite of family tax-and-benefit measures in late October, after world oil prices had started to tumble.

At the time of the announcement, which was made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself, oil prices had dropped to about US$80 per barrel from a high of around US$107 in June.

In recent days, oil prices have been hovering in the US$46 range.

Oliver was asked Friday whether, in retrospect, the government regrets introducing the initiatives amid plummeting prices that have since cut the per-barrel price tag in half.

“Well, we weren’t in the midst of a 50 per cent slide in the oil prices,” Oliver responded. “But the point is, a surplus isn’t there to look at. A surplus is there to provide benefits to Canadians.”

The family-friendly measures, which include a controversial plan to allow income splitting for families with young children, prevented the government from balancing the books in 2014-15 and only left a razor-thin surplus for 2015-16.

Critics have said the $2-billion per year income-splitting element will only benefit around 15 per cent of Canadian households.

The meagre surplus was also expected to give the Conservatives an edge by leaving little budgetary oxygen for political opponents to make campaign promises before the federal election, currently scheduled for Oct. 19.

After Thursday’s surprise announcement, political rivals accused the government of fumbling the federal books and putting politics ahead of responsible fiscal management.

NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen said the Harper government was “hitting the panic button” at a time when layoffs have struck the retail, manufacturing and energy sectors.

Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic, suggested the government was seeking to delay the delivery of a bad-news budget.

— With files from Diana Mehta in Toronto