After weeks of calls to hurry up and do it already, Finance Minister Joe Oliver has set a date of April 21 for the Harper government's key pre-election budget.
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Instead of announcing the budget in the House of Commons, Oliver's office summoned media to outerwear manufacturer Canada Goose's factory in Toronto on Thursday morning. (Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss sits on Oliver's economic advisory council.)
Oliver began by acknowledging that people have been asking for his budget for many months.
"We needed to assess the implications of the dramatic fall in oil prices and its instability on the Canadian economy and on our fiscal framework. And we needed the time to obtain as much information as possible to make reasoned fiscal decisions and receive current forecasts from our independent economic advisors whose projections we rely on," Oliver said.
"We now have the information we need to make informed decisions," he told reporters.
Oliver surprised some when he announced in January that he would delay the budget until later in the spring.
Other provinces, however, including resource-dependent Alberta, have forged ahead with their projections and laid out fiscal plans in the meantime, notwithstanding the delayed federal roadmap.
Oliver is set to meet with private sector economists next week, normally one of the final stops on a finance minister's path to setting out the numbers.
"We're not looking at a budget that will be cutting, we're looking at a budget that will be providing benefits to Canadians and encouraging more job growth," he said, adding that a stimulus budget was not necessary because Canada was not in a recession now.
Balanced budget pledged
Oliver pledged that the books will be balanced, just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government had promised. The familiar Conservative refrain of focusing on "jobs, growth and long-term prosperity" crossed his lips once more.
It won't be easy to do, given the cost of the family tax package announced last fall, as the government was celebrating reaching the end of its deficits.
Figures provided then estimated the price of those measures at $3.1 billion in 2014-15 and $4.5 billion in 2015-16.
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Bad economic news since then places extra pressure on Oliver's team to come up with a document that stays in the black but offers enough initiatives to both boost the economy and appeal to voters in the general election fixed for October.
At an event in Miramichi, N.B. Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper clarified the balanced budget wouldn't show on the books for 2014-15, the current fiscal year, "although we're very close." It will be balanced in the next fiscal year, 2015-16, he said.
Harper said a balanced budget was important to be able to protect services, maintain the lower tax levels his government brought in and ensure that if the government ever does need to run a deficit for a "serious situation" they will have the fiscal flexibility to do so.
On Monday, Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz warned that when Canada's GDP figures are ready for release, the first quarter of 2015 will look "atrocious."
Oliver said Thursday that the U.S. is gaining steam, but "one country cannot carry the world" and the overall economic recovery is fragile. Nevertheless, Canada's unemployment is at its lowest level in 6½ years, he noted.
Parties pre-positioning for election
This budget, Oliver's first since taking over the finance portfolio from the late Jim Flaherty last year, is expected to provide the centrepiece for a pre-election promotional push from the Conservatives, emphasizing their experience as financial managers for difficult times.
"The Liberals have told Canadians that budgets balance themselves. I can tell you they do not," Oliver said Thursday, in a now-familiar shot based on a past statement by Justin Trudeau.
"Budgets require a plan and a discipline to follow it," he said.
"The opposition's plans are far from complete or coherent," the finance minister said, characterizing those as "a tax and spend agenda that Canadians simply cannot afford, a risk our country should not assume and a debt burden our children should not bear."
On their way into question period Thursday, opposition critics were unimpressed.
New Democrat Peggy Nash said the government was moving to a "fake balance" and wondered what more they'd cut.
Liberal Scott Brison said the Harper government was "goosing middle-class Canadians" and feathering its own nest.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair used his opening round of question period Thursday to slam the Conservatives for planning to spend $7.5 million "to promote the budget and the Conservative Party." He then accused Harper and Oliver of fleeing Ottawa to avoid answering questions.