Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
Opposition parties are ratcheting up the pressure on the federal government to table a budget. That's good.
The chances these cries will affect the government's timing: Not so good.
"Back in the day," when daily politics was a bigger deal, budget days were a bigger deal too. For years, they were mostly about incumbents bestowing treats. When the fiscal picture soured, budget days were about sacrifice – as Alberta demonstrated this week. Either way, people paid more attention to what was happening.
But today, other than the professionals paid to do so, few voters could likely name the key contents of recent federal budgets.
Drama and ceremony once surrounded these days on Parliament Hill, but over time, the public began to think the drama was overdone. Good news was exaggerated by the government, while doom was made to seem gloomier by critics.
On Thursday, the Alberta government of Premier Jim Prentice presented a budget widely understood to be an election springboard. While the nature of this budget was strikingly different from what Ottawa's is likely to be, the strategic point was the same. Mr. Prentice wanted voters to hear: "This budget reflects my values and judgment. Please consider that when next you're heading to the polls."
On the other hand, in delaying its budget – indefinitely, it seems – the Harper government is busting another convention. This disrupts the flow of information some stakeholders in the economy find necessary to their work.
But chances are most voters have not even noticed, and will not. They are not suspending their lives, or any decisions, waiting on the choices Ottawa announces, whenever that happens.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver's communications about this budget have been, politely said, pretty shaky so far. Hours after declaring that declining oil prices would not put the government's fiscal plan off the rails, Mr. Oliver took what sounded like the opposite position: He could no longer predict revenues and needed to wait for more stability. The size of a surplus, the scale of tax cuts, and any spending initiatives hung in the balance.
Weeks later, you do not have to be a cynic to wonder if oil math or electoral math is influencing when this budget will emerge.
Despite a softening economy and sliding revenues, it is a good bet this is still going to be the best news budget this government has ever delivered. Not long after taking office, the global economic meltdown put the government in a fiscal box from which it will really only emerge this year.
Years of political planning have gone into this budget, which is expected to be the first in many years not to show a deficit. Mr. Harper will still be determined to surprise voters with something better than they are expecting. He will want a larger and more lingering impact on the political mood of the country.
Mr. Harper knows that the later this budget is, the more voters might remember some of its details when marking their ballots. Besides, who would want to launch a budget only to have it buried by the first wave of frothy coverage of the Mike Duffy trial?
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Oliver can make this budget sound as exciting as Mr. Harper will want it to be. If I were a Conservative backbencher wondering if 33 per cent in the polls nationally puts me on the electoral bubble, I'd be hoping Mr. Oliver is working on his salesmanship. He has the top sales job, but might rank as about the 20th-best communicator in this cabinet.
Chances are good the government is also planning to use our taxes to sell Mr. Oliver's budget to us through advertising. A later date means a budget-burnishing ad campaign will drift closer to the writ period. It is the sort of abuse the Accountability Act was supposed to correct, but maybe there is not so much shock value in that, even if there should be.
A long-serving Canadian prime minister once said "the essential ingredient of politics is timing." It happened to be a Liberal named Trudeau, but it is an idea not lost on a Conservative named Harper.