Tax cuts and new spending will be part of the Conservative government’s next budget, but Finance Minister Joe Oliver is cautioning Canadians not to expect too much given the small size of Ottawa’s upcoming surpluses.
Unlike previous years when Ottawa flatly ruled out proposals for new spending, Mr. Oliver said his pre-budget process will entertain suggestions for “prudent” spending. He said his main focus is to examine ideas that will boost job creation.
“We’re absolutely determined to proceed in a fiscally responsible way,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Mr. Oliver is meeting this week with a group of 16 invited guests to hear suggestions for the government’s future policy agenda and 2015 budget.
The 2015 budget will be Mr. Oliver’s first and the Conservative government’s last before returning to the polls.
Mr. Oliver’s chosen list of guests could offer insight into his policy priorities. This year’s list of invitees includes several business leaders, economist Sherry Cooper and Joseph Canavan, the board of directors chair of the Children’s Aid Foundation.
Also on the list is National Post journalist Peter Foster, who earlier this year praised the Harper government for taking “a more robust resistance to the economically destructive global climate agenda.” Mr. Foster is a critic of what he describes as “radical environmental groups,” which is a phrase that Mr. Oliver also used in 2012 when he was minister of natural resources. In that portfolio, Mr. Oliver regularly faced accusations from the opposition NDP that he did not consider climate change to be a serious issue.
Mr. Oliver said the decision to invite Mr. Foster is not an indication of the government's thinking.
"We invited a fair number of people and this being the summer, a number of them weren't able to attend, including several journalists we invited," Mr. Oliver said. "The policies that may be held by this very diverse group of people doesn't reflect the policy preference of the government."
The gathering at the Wakefield Mill Inn, about a half hour north of Ottawa, became an annual tradition under former finance minister Jim Flaherty, who died in April. A mix of business leaders and policy experts are invited to attend the closed door discussions about the government’s agenda.
The timing of the retreat effectively kicks off the budget cycle. Throughout the fall, the House of Commons finance committee will hear budget suggestions from interest groups.
Since the recession, Mr. Flaherty often used the summer policy retreat to lower expectations of future spending by reiterating the government’s focus on eliminating the deficit. However this budget cycle will be different. The Conservative government is projecting balanced books in 2015-16. The most recent budget estimated that year will be the first of ongoing annual surpluses that will total at least $32.9-billion over the first four years.
The Feb. 11 federal budget projected a deficit of $2.9-billion in 2014-15. However that figure includes a $3-billion cushion for unforeseen events such as weaker-than-expected economic growth. This year's budget also projected a $6-billion surplus for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Given that the 2015 budget will effectively underpin the Conservative government’s election platform, it is likely that the budget will outline plans for those future surpluses with a mix of tax cuts and new spending.