Little suspense in Flaherty's well-worn vision

Chantal Hebert
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It can't be much fun to be Stephen Harper's Finance minister these days - or at least not as much fun as it used to be.

For the first five years of Jim Flaherty's tenure the fate of the Conservative government hung in the balance of each of his budgets - with the attending suspense that makes for prime-time political drama and the Finance minister in the starring role.

But this week Flaherty makes a cameo appearance between two Winter Olympics competitions, and during Monday's question period he spent the time tweeting for advice as to the tie to wear for the next day's speech.

Between 2006 and 2011, Flaherty's annual budget had to secure enough opposition support to ensure the survival of a minority government or, failing that, be attractive enough to fight an election on.

In those early years, Harper was also still striving to build a larger electoral foundation and put its stamp on federalism and on the government.

Flaherty's second budget - presented in the dying days of the 2007 Quebec election campaign on the theme of the so-called fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces - probably saved Jean Charest and his federalist government from imminent defeat.

For Flaherty though, the stakes were never higher than in 2009. That budget came on the heels of a fiscal update that almost cost Harper his second mandate and against the backdrop of a global recession.

Two years later, the 2011 budget set off the campaign that saw the Conservatives finally vault to a majority.

Since then, the adrenalin that attended to the presentation of Flaherty's annual budget has largely evaporated. What used to be the marquee event of the parliamentary year has become just another day at the office for the Conservatives.

Within 24 hours of delivering the budget last year, Flaherty flew off on a trade mission to Asia. By the time he resurfaced in the House of Commons a month later, the focus was on the Liberals' newly elected leader. Then the breaking Senate scandal consumed the balance of the spring session.

It turned out that the PMO had much else on its mind at the time of Flaherty's last budget. Based on emails obtained by the RCMP, the Prime Minister's Office was already mired in the complications of what would subsequently bloom into the spending scandal.

High-level preoccupations with the upper house may account for the fact that the 2013 budget saw the minister pull a half-dead rabbit out of his hat. A year later, its signature feature - the Canada Job Grant - still exists only in the imagination of Conservative spin doctors. They have spent $2.5 million so far to advertise a non-existent labour training program that no province has liked enough to sign off on.

This year, the timing of Tuesday's budget put Flaherty in direct competition for coverage with the Winter Olympics. That Conservative programming decision guaranteed that it would not be front and centre in the media for a second longer than was absolutely necessary - notwithstanding how nice a tie Flaherty eventually selected.

For better or worse, eight years into the tenure of any government its budget template is pretty much set.

At the same juncture in the governing timeline, Brian Mulroney was pursuing NAFTA and implementing the GST.

Jean Chrétien was banking on a string of surpluses to consolidate the social infrastructure of the federation.

But Harper leads the least activist federal government in living memory and Flaherty's core political mission consists of squeezing enough money out of the system to introduce a fresh round of tax cuts in time for the 2015 Conservative election campaign.

Like the process of making sausages, it is a task best performed in the back of the store, out of the immediate sight of anyone who might worry about what government programs are going in the grinder to deliver them.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column is distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.

Organizations: Conservatives, House of Commons, RCMP Torstar Syndication Services

Geographic location: Quebec, Ottawa, Asia Canada

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