The Commons: Jim Flaherty toasts his fine work

The deficit will be eliminated. Somehow.

Stopping by the House of Commons on his way to China, Jim Flaherty received the customary ovation afforded a finance minister upon him arriving to deliver the budget. He received another standing ovation when he stood to table the four books that apparently comprised this year’s Action! Plan!

The Conservatives did not stand to applaud again for another 400 words. Until precisely this.

“Much of what I announce today is aimed at making this country an even better place to raise a family, to work and to establish a business. But, before I proceed, I need to make one thing very clear,” Mr. Flaherty explained. “And it is simply this: Our government is committed to balancing the budget in 2015.”

The Conservatives cheered. And a couple dozen of them stood again a few moments later when he restated it.

“We will not back away from our steadfast commitment to fiscal responsibility,” Mr. Flaherty vowed. “We will not balance the budget on the backs of hard-working Canadian families or those in need. But we will balance the budget. And we will do it in 2015.”

As Scott Clark and Peter DeVries have noted, this promise has the odd quirk of being unverifiable until after the next election. The Harper government can say now that it will balance the budget by 2015 and it might even present a budget in 2015 that demonstrates as much, but not until 2016 will anyone be able to say for sure whether the federal budget has actually returned to black.

But no doubt the Conservatives very much want this commitment to come true. With the Prime Minister having said the government would never go into deficit and with the government having created a structural deficit and with the Finance Minister having wagered on various surplus horses, the Conservatives—they, at least nominally, being conservative—must dearly wish to have these large red numbers out of the way.

So how will the Harper government go about doing what the Conservative caucus is apparently quite excited to do? Good question.

Mr. Flaherty was eager to explain all of the things the Conservatives would not do.

“We will not put the future of Canadian families at risk,” he allowed.

“We will not waver from our commitment to create jobs and fill jobs for Canadians,” he declared.

“We will not spend recklessly,” he guessed.

“We will not reduce transfers… transfers to individuals, children and seniors… transfers to provinces and territories for critical services like health care and education,” he ventured.

“We will not raise taxes,” he concluded.

What does that leave for the Harper to do? Not much, apparently. Discretionary spending will not increase by too much. And, Mr. Flaherty said, the Conservatives would do their part by “looking inwards.”

“Our plan introduces measures, for example, to reduce spending on travel,” he said, “and end duplication of internal government services.”

There was not much more to say on this front. Indeed, save for a few sentences about tax loopholes, the rest of the speech was promises of new spending and further tax relief—money for training and infrastructure and machinery. There was a whole paean to bridges, inspired by Lord Tweedsmuir.

So perhaps the Prime Minister will not bother appointing another Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. Combine that cut with the savings gained by consolidating the government’s computer systems and the deficit will apparently be eliminated.

It’s just that easy. And as long as it remains that easy, 2015 will arrive and the deficit will be nearly gone and no one will have noticed much of a change except for those cabinet ministers who will have had to make due with fewer plane rides to China.

Conversely, another coast guard station might have to be closed.

“Despite the economic issues our government has faced, we have done our very best to keep taxes low for all Canadians,” Mr. Flaherty boasted nearer to the end of his speech. “In fact, our government has introduced more than 150 tax relief measures since 2006. That’s why the average family of four is saving more than $3,200 per year in taxes.”

And for that money, the average family of four would seem to have to expect less government.

In the line graphs and in the nooks and crannies of our antiquated system of parliamentary accountability are the precise details of how much less. Perhaps some day soon we’ll again have a Parliamentary Budget Officer who might be able to help in the task of figuring out just what sort of “duplication” is being eliminated and what consolidation is occurring. Indeed, it is a perfect irony that on the same day the Conservatives stood and applauded the Finance Minister’s commitment to deficit reduction, the Federal Court was hearing Kevin Page’s plea to see exactly how the Conservatives were planning on fulfilling that promise.

When Mr. Flaherty was finished, the New Democrats and Liberals registered their objections—Liberal Geoff Regan daring to suggest that the Conservatives were somehow responsible for the deficit, the NDP’s Peggy Nash seeming to forgive the government the deficit for the purposes of lamenting the government’s cuts. “The deficit that we are facing was not caused by government spending,” she tried to explain. “Rather, it was the recession that caused the deficit.”

With her opportunity, Conservative MP Tilly O’Neill-Gordon chose to congratulate the “Minister of Economic Action Plan 2013” on his effort. This was possibly a slip of the Freudian variety. It is also possibly, whatever good or bad may come, Mr. Flaherty’s political epitaph.

“No one can know the future. But, from where I stand, I will say this: These seven years have belonged to Canada,” Mr. Flaherty had declared in drawing his speech to a close. The evidence is in. Our economy has been resilient. We can all be proud of that. And, I will also say this: Canada’s economic future is bright. That we have some tough times ahead, I do not doubt. No one who sees the world around us would disagree. But the plan I have presented today— Canada’s Economic Action Plan 2013—advances a solid vision that has stood the test of time. Where others have faltered, we have maintained a consistent, steady hand. Today, we move this responsible plan forward. Forward, toward that bright future. With this plan, our government renews our commitment to Canadians. Our commitment to jobs. Our commitment to growth. Our commitment to long-term prosperity. For all Canadians.”

The Conservatives stood again to cheer, this time themselves.

With the opening toast thus given, we await the budget bills and what details may or may not come.