The Conservative government kicked off its pre-budget listening tour by telling Canadians what not to say.
Launched Friday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the series of mostly closed-door meetings over the coming months are coupled with an online questionnaire that makes clear new spending ideas are not welcome.
The first of five questions asks Canadians for "cost-neutral or non-spending steps" that the government can take to create jobs. The other questions are whether the 2016 target for balanced budgets is appropriate, where government could save money and what Canada's economic priorities should be for the short and long term.
The government also asks Canadians for any other ideas they may have.
Pauline Christian, President of the Black Business Professional Association, was one of 18 leaders from business and academia who were invited to the opening session of consultations in Toronto.
She said Mr. Flaherty clearly wants suggestions on how to spend existing cash more efficiently. As for the deficit, Ms. Christian said Mr. Flaherty was told to move faster.
"Some of the participants are saying is too long. Why can't we do it now?" she said. "I think we can be a little bit more aggressive."
The government's tour provides Mr. Flaherty with an opportunity to try out ideas for what will be a high stakes budget. Coming nearly 2 1/2 years after the last election, the timing suggests the minority Conservatives face the risk of an election-triggering parliamentary defeat.
But the consultations are also an opportunity for Mr. Flaherty to set expectations and frame the political debate on his terms.
"This is not the time for risky new spending schemes that will increase deficits and raise taxes," Mr. Flaherty told reporters Friday morning before taking part in the closed-door consultations. "I think this is a budget where our intention is to stay the course; no big new spending plans."
The list of 18 invitees included executives from Facebook, Ericsson, Lafarge, Amgen Canada, Rypple, The Ontario College of Art and Design, CentrePort Canada Inc., the University of Waterloo, Rogers Communications, Encana Corporation, Roche Canada, Google Canada, Carleton University, Ocean Choice International, eBay Canada, the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Medical Association.
The federal deficit hit a record $55.6-billion last year. In his recent fiscal update, Mr. Flaherty said the deficit will drop to $45.4-billion in 2010-11 and continue on a downward trend until Canada posts a surplus of $2.6-billion in 2015-16.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page assessed that update and concluded there is an 85-per- cent chance the government will miss its target for balancing the books.
Liberal finance critic Scott Brison noted that while Mr. Flaherty says new spending priorities are not welcome, the government is not asking for input on some of its more contentious and expensive spending plans, such as new prisons and fighter jets.
"He's basically saying to Canadians there's no room for investing in your priorities because we're too busy spending on ours," said Mr. Brison. The Liberal MP noted that his party does support some new spending on programs to help Canadians care for sick relatives, which would be paid for by reversing planned corporate tax cuts.
NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair, who says the government is turning away from stimulus spending too quickly, said the tone of the next budget will depend entirely on whether the Conservatives want to provoke an election.
"If they were to come in with a pure, dogmatic slash-and-burn budget saying 'Everybody's asking us to bring the 2016 date forward, here's the only blueprint to do it,' then they'll be forcing an election without being the ones who actually pull the trigger," he said.