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Treasury Board President Stockwell Day arrives to testify at a Commons committee about his plans to freeze departmental budgets in Ottawa on Feb. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Treasury Board President Stockwell Day arrives to testify at a Commons committee about his plans to freeze departmental budgets in Ottawa on Feb. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Tories cagey about cuts to the budget Add to ...

The hunt for cuts continues.

Nearly a year after the Harper government's 2010 budget promised to find $17.6-billion in savings as part of its plan to erase the deficit within five years, virtually no details have emerged as to what jobs will go vacant or what programs will end.

It's a far cry from the deficit-fighting drama of the mid-1990s, when the then-Liberal government prompted howls of outrage across the country with painful cuts that closed military bases and slashed provincial transfers.

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Yet the Harper government insists this time is different. Ending the stimulus spending, freezing operating budgets and trimming 5 per cent from each department will be enough to erase the $55.6-billion deficit, officials argue.

"Some people would like us to go further. We think we can manage without doing that," Treasury Board President Stockwell Day - the keeper of the public purse - told a House of Commons committee Tuesday.

While the details on the budget freezes and 5-per-cent reductions may come in the March budget, opposition MPs aren't holding their breath. NDP MP Pat Martin accused Mr. Day Tuesday of deliberately keeping the bad news of spending cuts a "deep dark secret" until after a possible spring election.

Relatively small spending cuts can sometimes explode into big controversy, as the Conservatives learned during the 2008 election campaign, when Quebeckers rallied against cuts to arts funding.

Mr. Day repeated the government's position Tuesday that it is up to deputy ministers - the top public servants of each department - to determine the best way to comply with tighter budgets. So far, the government has succeeded in avoiding so-called Musical Ride episodes, where bureaucrats passive-aggressively serve up politically unpalatable cuts to their political masters.

Liberal MP Geoff Regan, a member of the government operations committee that has tried for months to find out the impact of the spending cuts, said there's no excuse for the ongoing secrecy. "I'm at my wits' end," he said.

Mr. Martin accused the minister of deliberately keeping the details of cuts secret because Canada is on the verge of a federal election. "The public has a right to know what the government's plans are to dig us out of this deep, deep deficit hole, but yet it's been like pulling teeth trying to get that information," he said.

So how credible is the government's deficit-fighting plan? Former Finance official Peter DeVries has labelled the government's plan the "don't worry, be happy" approach to budgeting. He accuses both the Conservatives and Liberals of ignoring the "tough decisions" required.

There have also been repeated warnings from Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page that the lack of detail on cuts makes reaching the balanced budget target unlikely.

The International Monetary Fund has described Ottawa's five-year plan as credible, but said it may require scaling back the growth of health transfers. Transfers are the big unknown. All three transfer programs expire in 2014, and the health component currently rises by 6 per cent a year. Scaling that back would help Ottawa meet its target, but the provinces would likely claim that a lower rate of growth is in effect a cut.

Either way, Mr. Day, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are not tipping their hands.

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