UPDATED: Senior government official scoops finance minister

Harper's break with federal budget traditions might be a sharp political move


A Friday morning round-up of reaction finds most observers taken aback, as I was yesterday (see post below), by the government’s decision to release the deficit numbers that will be contained in next week’s budget. (By the way, I wouldn’t call this a “leak”; it was an overt and official announcement, even if the announcer’s name can’t be revealed.)

Bank of Montreal’s Doug Porter rather delicately calls the move “exceptionally unusual.” CBC terms it “extraordinary” in light of the “legendary” secrecy around budgets. No surprise that Liberal John McCallum slams it as “grossly irresponsible,” while CanWest accurately observes that the release “went beyond the traditional leaks” of less important budget details that became routine when Paul Martin was finance minister.


The decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to have a senior government official
release the deficit numbers for the next two years is a breathtaking break with hallowed federal budget traditions—and might just be a sharp political move.

Putting those huge deficit numbers out early—$34 billion in red ink for 2009-10 and $30 billion for 2010-11—leaves Finance Minister Jim Flaherty a fighting chance of making something else the big news next Tuesday.

No doubt, Flaherty and the PM hope the coverage on budget day will focus on the nature of their stimulus package, what sort of infrastructure, how much help for newly jobless Canadians, which short-term tax relief, and so on.

That senior government official (we’re not allowed to name him) declined to explain the dumping of the old doctrine that major budget information must remain secret until the budget is tabled. Perhaps there’s no great harm in putting out this information early.

Yet there’s something unsettling here. The practice of tabling the entire federal fiscal plan on one day is largely based on the idea that it’s impossible to understand one part without the context of the rest of the blueprint.

So today’s deficit revelation is nearly impossible to analyze. Are those huge numbers entirely justified by a solidly built stimulus package beneath them? We sure hope so. Or are they are the product of a vague, hastily slapped together wish list? Also quite possible.

And what about the basic economic assumptions behind the deficit projections? Earlier today, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney was looking ahead to the recovery he expects to start late this year and generate healthy economic growth in 2010.

Despite what Carney sees ahead, today’s unexpected numbers from the government envision a huge deficit in 2010-11. Does that mean the finance department is assuming lower growth than Carney next year, or that even with the solid rebound he anticipates in 2010, the federal deficit will remain punishing high?

Without all the other budget data that usually comes—on budget day of course—along with any deficit or surplus projection, we have no firm idea. These are just numbers, then, not information.