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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks to reporters in Vancouver on Jan. 10, 2012. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks to reporters in Vancouver on Jan. 10, 2012. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Herky-jerky budget talk raises doubts about Tory discipline Add to ...

The weeks that lead up a budget are prime time for governments to telegraph intentions, soften up targets, make people expect bad things and deliver better.

The minute a budget it tabled, most of what voters hear are complaints about shortcomings. That’s just life in a democracy, not some dastardly conspiracy.

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To offset this phenomenon, the Harper government (certainly not the first to do so) has in the past spent millions to tout its initiatives, and it is gilding its lilies again this spring. For a government pushing a culture shift in spending, this may come off as more than a bit audacious once the budget is tabled. If there was risk of a backlash in the past, the risk is higher now.

Watching Ottawa use paid advertising to promote the last few budgets might have been easier for Canadians to accept, given the unusual circumstances. One point of these budgets was to reassure people the sky was not falling, in order to help ensure that it wouldn’t fall. You could make a case that in the midst of unprecedented anxiety, the ad campaigns were designed to help shore up faltering confidence, and in so doing help make stimulus spending more efficient. (I’m not saying it's a strong case, just that a case could be made then – and today maybe not so much.)

The incongruity of a multi-million-dollar ad campaign to tout the merits of the 2012 budget is just part of what is puzzling about Ottawa’s economic message right now. The Finance and Canada Revenue Agency ads focus on jobs, growth and tax cuts, while Ottawa has made it clear for months this budget will be about spending cuts and fiscal correction.

If there are questions about the paid media campaign, the government’s “earned media” strategy is also perplexing. Earned media in this context is the free publicity governments get in the run up to the budget when they hint at what they are planning to do, in an effort to set expectations they can then meet or exceed. News media, industry, and a wide array of non-governmental organizations are always hoping to better anticipate what government will do. And so they tend to hang on every hint divulged.

For a government as disciplined as this one has been about communications, this pre-budget season seems kind of herky-jerky. If there’s a script, I’m not sure all the key players are reading from it.

The biggest mystery is how draconian the budget will be. For a long time the government seemed to be telegraphing that it was going to be one of the toughest plans ever seen. A necessary correction, time for the country to accept the hangover. DNA evidence of this government's true conservatism for those who doubted it.

But more recently, these signals have softened quite a bit. Ottawa's revenues are up by $7-billion, spending is down by $3-billion, the fiscal situation is looking brighter, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is saying we don't need draconian cuts. If it turns out to be a moderate budget, most voters won’t be surprised. Only one of every two people are expecting a bad-news budget, and even then their definition of bad news is a moderate one: Most don’t believe that major cuts to social programs including public pensions are needed. If it truly is Budgetgeddon, lots of voters will be taken aback.

Budget making is one of the key tests of the strategic and communications skills of any government. It's hard not to wonder if the Harper government is, ironically, finding it was easier to do in the middle of an economic crisis and with the risk of an election at any moment.

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