Federal budget 2015: Conservatives dig into contingency to hit surplus

Finance Minister Joe Oliver has managed to keep the Conservatives' 2011 election promise to return Canada to a surplus in 2015 with a federal budget that has the government spending $1.4 billion less than it takes in – despite a spate of pre-election tax cuts announced last fall.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver scrapes together savings to balance books, and give tax breaks

Oliver, Mulcair and Trudeau on the budget

9 years ago
Duration 2:42
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau react to Finance Minister Joe Oliver's budget Tuesday.

The Conservatives have their balanced budget — barely.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver has managed to keep the Conservatives' 2011 election promise to return Canada to a surplus in 2015 with a federal budget that has the government spending $1.4 billion less than it takes in — despite a spate of pre-election tax cuts announced last fall.

But the slim surpluses for this year and the next three years were bolstered by setting aside a smaller contingency fund than they planned just a few months ago in the fall economic update, as well as sales of some assets. Savings from public sector negotiations that haven't yet taken place also helped put the budget barely into the black.

Without shrinking those rainy day funds, the Conservatives would still be in deficit for 2015-16 and would be projecting a $0.9 billion surplus in 2016-17.

It's also clear how fragile the surplus is: a one-year, one percentage point decrease in the expected two per cent growth rate would drop the federal government back into deficit.

Oliver, however still found room for targeted tax measures to dress up a budget his party will take into the next election:

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  • The annual contribution limit for tax-free savings accounts rises to $10,000 from $5,500, effective immediately.
  • Seniors at age 71 can leave more money in their tax-sheltered Registered Retirement Income Funds each year to help their savings last longer.
  • EI benefits to care for a sick or dying relative extended to six months from current six weeks.
  • A new home accessibility tax credit to renovate homes to make them more accessible for seniors and people with disabilities.
  • Small businesses earning less than half a million dollars will see their tax rate cut to nine per cent from 11 per cent by 2019.
  • Industry will see the accelerated capital cost allowance for new equipment extended 10 years.
  • Changes to student grant and loan programs to ease eligibility for short-term students and working students.

"Canadians need a break. Their expenses are significant," Oliver told reporters during a press conference Tuesday. "It's important for us to make life as affordable as we can."

However, while the government last year doubled its fitness tax credit for children, it seems to be pulling back on a promise to implement the same measure for adults. Budget 2015 notes the government promises only to put together a panel to "study the potential scope" of an adult fitness tax credit.

Oliver said oil prices fell so far last year that they aren't likely to plunge again. He also found reassurance in the growth projections of private-sector economists and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz.

A whole volley of questions could be asked about possible changes to the government's $291 billion in revenue or approximately $289 billion in spending, Oliver said. But the one important fact is irrefutable:

"Our revenue will be greater than our expenses. That's how a balanced budget works," he said.

NDP, Liberal criticism

The NDP and Liberals criticized the government for moving ahead with income-splitting for two-parent families, which is most beneficial to families with a single high income. They also took aim at the increase in contribution room for tax-free savings accounts to $10,000.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver, left, and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair take part in TV interviews after the federal budget was tabled in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Prime Minister Stephen Harper is "stubbornly clinging to his view" that the best thing to do for society is help the wealthiest.

"He wants to increase the tax-free savings account, which is very nice if you have $60,000 in your back pocket," Mulcair said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said his party would reverse the TFSA increase if it were in government.

"The TFSA itself, up to $5,000, is an encouragement to people to save and there's a lot of Canadians who do that," Trudeau said. 

"But the reality is there's not a lot of people who at the end of the year have $10,000 laying around that they can invest."

The smaller contingency fund also raised Mulcair's hackles. He accused the Conservatives of abusing it to show a balanced budget in an election year.

"I think that's probably the contingency they're worried about ... the election."

Money for security

The government further massaged its bottom line with a promise to cut public service disability and sick leave, a pledge based on negotiations yet to take place. The budget projects the government will save $900 million in the current fiscal year due to "ensuring a healthier and more productive public service."

Joe Oliver, after a weeks-long delay brought on by falling oil prices and a sagging economy, has tabled his first budget as finance minister. It's a budget his party will take into this fall's federal election. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Some of the programs were announced in previous budgets and are being re-announced. A series of  measures for veterans falls into that category.

The budget also includes money for national security and defence, including $360 million this year for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Canada has committed to a renewed six-month combat mission in Iraq and Syria, which is set to expire in the fall.

The Conservatives are also promising to increase spending for National Defence from an annual 1.5 per cent increase to an annual three per cent increase, although the department has returned billions in unspent funds in recent years.

Other security-related spending includes:

  • $36 million over the next years to improve security on Parliament Hill.
  • $292.5 million for the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Canada Border Services Agency for counter-terrorism.
  • $2.5 million a year more for the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which reviews CSIS.
  • $19 million over five years for enhanced security for federal courts and court administration buildings.
  • $8 million over five years for better physical and IT security at the Supreme Court.
  • $10 million over five years to support police services in Ottawa.
  • $4 million over five years for security at Canadian Armed Forces bases.
  • $7.1 million this year to help train soldiers in Ukraine.

Some measures announced in this year's budget don't begin to take effect for years, including a new public transit fund to help cities fight traffic congestion by encouraging public-private infrastructure projects.