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Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises to congratulate the new speaker following voting in the voting for the new Speaker of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday June 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises to congratulate the new speaker following voting in the voting for the new Speaker of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday June 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

John Ibbitson

When the axe falls, will the streets fill with protests? Add to ...

This is the budget that sets the clock ticking. In nine months, the alarm will sound and the real drama of this Parliament will begin.

Then we will see what a majority Conservative government looks like, and whether what activist Jamie Biggar calls "the public voice" is still alive in the land.

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Budget 2011 version 2.0 is not, as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty suggests, a simple rehashing of the March 22 budget. There is one very large change.

It commits the Conservative government to eliminating the federal deficit in 2014-15, one year earlier than planned. For most governments, advancing a deficit-reduction target would be agony. It will hurt here as well.

"Is it challenging to do? It's challenging to do," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged at his news conference on Monday. "Is it doable? Absolutely doable."

The challenge is particularly acute because the Conservatives are committed to preserving or increasing spending over the coming years on health and social transfers, equalization transfers, funding for native Canadians, at least some funding for cities, and defence. They know that any major cuts in direct services to people, provinces or the military could lead to a sharp and permanent loss in popular support.

What does that leave? It leaves civil-service jobs. Culture. Environment. Agriculture and fisheries. Parks. Immigration training and settlement. Regional economic development.

An $80-billion aggregate budget must lose $4-billion, or 5 per cent, with no allowance for inflation. In some places, cuts will be severe. And those who are affected will fight back.

In the past, when governments have swung the axe aggressively to save money, people have taken to the streets. Labour has brought its workers to the lawns of legislatures. Brian Mulroney and Mike Harris faced major demonstrations and public-servant strikes.

But people don't seem to demonstrate against the Harper government, apart from the odd smatterings of curmudgeons who show up at this event or that. The unpleasantness at the G20 summit last June was more about globalization in general.

Other than that, a Senate page with a protest sign has earned more ink than all the protests of the past 5 1/2 years put together.

Maybe that will change, now that minority parliaments are no longer around to restrain the Conservatives. Mr. Biggar, co-founder of a new organization called LeadNow.ca, seeks to mobilize progressives through social media and popular action. There will be demonstrations, he predicts, because Conservatives "are sensitive to public opinion, and a way to rally public opinion is through public demonstrations."

Or not. Mass public demonstrations might simply have gone out of style in Canada. Or maybe, for all the outcry about fat-cat tax cuts and democracy in peril, the Harper government hasn't done much of anything that many people feel like protesting against.

We'll know one way or another when the next budget is released, about 280 days from now, give or take. Tick. Tick.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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