Politics·Analysis

If Jim Prentice can roll out his budget, why can’t Joe Oliver?

By any measure you choose, no province in the Confederation is more affected by oil’s plunge than Alberta. Nonetheless, it is proceeding with its budget plan as scheduled. By contrast, federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced he wouldn’t present a budget “earlier than April,” because of “market instability.”

Alberta and Saskatchewan unveil budgets, despite plunging oil prices. Ottawa is still holding off

Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver is still working on the 2015 budget, which has been delayed by 'market instability' caused by the plunge in oil prices. A federal election in October might also be adding to his caution. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

No province in the Confederation is more affected by oil’s plunge than Alberta, by any measure you choose, ​

Yet Alberta proceeded with its budget plan as scheduled.

Premier Jim Prentice says this budget not only deals with sinking oil prices, but is "transformative" for the province.

Last week, Saskatchewan moved ahead with its budget, acknowledging a $661-million hit from the decline in oil revenues.

That represents almost five per cent of the province’s expected overall revenues.

Banks not waiting either

Canada’s major banks — upon whom finance ministers have relied for fiscal projections for years — are also not waiting any longer to prognosticate.

Each of the Big Five has posted its fiscal projections for the coming year in the last few weeks.

Very strange – it really is.— Duane Bratt, Mount Royal University, on the delayed federal budget

The average of the banks' 2015 GDP forecasts is in the neighbourhood of two per cent — which is down from the federal government’s assumption of 2.6 per cent in last November’s fiscal and economic update.

By contrast, last January federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced he wouldn’t present a budget "earlier than April," because of "market instability."

Could be even later

A few weeks later he noted the budget could come "after April," as well.            

The expectation in Ottawa is that if the government tables the budget in April, it would be in the last week — but it could also be in the first week of May.

"Very strange — it really is," is how Duane Bratt sums it up.

He’s the chair of the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University.

"The bigger question is why is the federal government delaying [the budget], not the question of why Alberta is going now — which is the regular part of the budget cycle."

Alberta on schedule

Alberta’s budget has come down the middle of the usual window over the last decade — which has seen them tabled anywhere from early February to the latter half of March.

Outside of periods interrupted by elections, no budget has been tabled in Ottawa in the same time frame later than March 29.

In 2009, citing the chaos of the global economic crisis, the government boasted of tabling "the earliest budget in history," when it brought down that year’s spending plan on Jan. 29.

Since the last budget, the Department of Finance has ushered in not only a new minister, but also a chief of staff to the minister, a new deputy minister and an associate deputy minister, all of which has affected the writing of a budget.

Items that may have been crossed off the agenda with a knowing sigh or nod now likely require more discussion and explanation as the new players get up to speed.

Election timing

There’s also no denying that politics is playing into this — Oliver and his boss, Stephen Harper, are set to go to the polls this October.

Prentice is widely expected to plunge his province into an election much sooner than that.

"Prentice wants to run the election on this budget," says Bratt, "So you need to present the budget; then call the election."

He points out that while Prentice is facing an opposition in utter disarray, Harper finds himself in a more competitive race.

"Therefore [the federal Conservatives] need to carefully craft the budget to declare a surplus," says Bratt.

​'Peekaboo'

On Thursday, the federal Liberals asked when the government would stop playing "peekaboo" with Canadians and table a spending plan.

Parliamentary secretary for finance Andrew Saxton responded for the government.

"We know full well we are in a fragile global economy and, of course, this country has been impacted by the dramatic fall in oil prices — that is even more reason to stick to our government’s plan that has generated nearly 1.2 million net new jobs since the end of the recession," Saxton told the House of Commons.

There was no hint as to why 2009’s global financial turmoil required quick action, while this latest instability needs a slow, cautious approach.

Nor an explanation as to why Prentice is able to roll out his budget and Oliver cannot.

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