If the Canadian government makes a concerted move to cut the deficit and balance the budget next week, to quote Canadian comedian Russell Peters, "Somebody gonna get a-hurt real bad."
In Peters' hilarious routine (available on YouTube, but beware the language), the comedian's father never really gets around to the beating stage. It's all threat. Perhaps a scary figure of authority to his son, staring up with round eyes, Peters senior never comes off as a child abuser. He remains a likeable offstage character.
In the coming budget, think of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in the role of Russell Peters' dad.
A lot of people have warned of the growing deficit, including Parliament's own budgetary watchdog, Kevin Page. Bank leaders, union spokesmen and politicians have all weighed in on the subject, but Page's view is probably the most reliable of all. The Parliamentary Budget Officer is truly without conflicting interests.
Page says we in Canada are facing a stubborn and dangerous structural deficit. "Structural," in this case, is just a big word to say the bills we are running up are not a little loan to tide us over a bad patch. A structural deficit is like living in a house where the rent is more than your income, and borrowing to buy groceries and beer.
Page says that even when the economy starts chugging away again, our long-term liabilities, like pension and health-care bills for an aging population, will continue to exceed the taxes that pay for them.
There is only one answer, says Page. We have to move into a smaller house, and cut back on groceries and beer. We are talking some serious belt-tightening. Either that, or the government has to do the one thing likely to enrage its loyal voting core: Raise taxes.
Jim Flaherty knows balancing the budget won't "be popular or pain-free." That's a quote from Flaherty himself last September. It would have been more fun if instead he had said, "Somebody gonna get a-hurt real bad," but the meaning is the same.
In the current economic climate, any rollback in spending will hurt. Cutting military spending will mean fewer jobs for companies and contractors. With every tenth person on the job line, even cutting the civil service could risk outrage. Who would have thought, last time around, that cuts to the arts in Quebec would have caused such a political backlash?
There is the added difficulty that any cuts at all will suck money out of the aggregate economy, with the danger of throttling tenuous growth and tossing us back into recession. Fixing the other side of the ledger by shaking more money out of those able to pay is a non-starter. Raising taxes beyond the employment insurance increase already on the cards could quickly turn a Conservative minority government into a Liberal minority government.
And that is why it is very unlikely that Flaherty will be in a rush to wipe out our growing deficit, or even to chop it down very much.
It is fine — maybe even fun — to threaten. But no one, especially a minority government that desperately needs to be a majority government, wants to be the actual perpetrator of violence.
What I would watch for in this coming budget are warnings about future budget cuts. We will all look on with round eyes.
I would also watch for long-term cuts that won't begin to bite for several years. If they are far enough away, we can nod sagely and realize they are a painful necessity. Eventually. As well, watch for a few pro forma cuts.
In fact, my prediction is that Canada's deficit will continue to grow until we have a majority government, whether Conservative or other.
Minority governments are incompatible with fiscal prudence, because they know that if they balance the budget, somebody gonna get a-hurt real bad.
And it might just be them.