Parliament's return next week is set to trigger a frenzy of high-stakes lobbying as work heats up on a federal budget that will include billions in new spending and tax cuts.
In a sign of this budget's heightened importance, the House of Commons finance committee has received 418 reports from groups and individuals with recommendations, up from 364 the year before. The committee plans to launch its prebudget hearings later this month, which is much sooner than in the past.
The weeks of hearings will provide a public glimpse of the arguments government officials are hearing behind the scenes, as hundreds of causes and campaigns attempt to win over cabinet ministers and their political aides.
For a Conservative government trailing in the polls, the 2015 budget is an opportunity for the Tories to tell Canadians what they would do with another mandate, says Stanley Hartt, a former deputy minister of finance who served as chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney. Mr. Hartt was among the 16 individuals invited to a closed-door policy retreat with Finance Minister Joe Oliver last month to discuss the budget.
"If the vision offered by the incumbent government is sufficiently attractive, it is a page turner," Mr. Hartt said in an interview. "If they do it right, I don't think that people are necessarily going to get tired of them."
Conservative MP James Rajotte, who chairs the finance committee, confirmed that prebudget hearings will start this month; last year they began in early November. Budgets are normally tabled in February or March.
With a fixed election scheduled for October, 2015, the budget effectively becomes a Conservative campaign platform.
Just how much the Conservative government will have to spend is a matter of debate. Mr. Oliver recently moved to play down expectations, pointing out that the last budget estimated the size of the 2015-16 surplus at $6.4-billion. That budget also forecast a cumulative surplus of $32.9-billion between 2015-16 and 2016-19, giving the government the option of making larger, more long-term announcements.
At some point this fall, Mr. Oliver will release a fiscal update that will revise the government's forecasts as to how much room the government has to spend.
Former Department of Finance officials Scott Clark and Peter DeVries recently wrote in ipolitics.ca that the return to surplus could come in the 2014-15 fiscal year – beating the government's timeline by a year – and that the early surplus could be as large as $7-billion.
Planning for surpluses would mark a significant change from the last three budgets, which were devoted to spending restraint in order to climb out of the deficits created by the massive stimulus spending in the 2009 and 2010 budgets.
Opposition MPs have long been skeptical of the finance committee's prebudget hearings, arguing the real decisions are made in the Prime Minister's Office and that unwelcome recommendations are ignored by the Conservative majority when it comes time for the committee to write a report.
Nonetheless, NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen said there will be two conversations hanging over the public discussions between MPs and witnesses at committee: the budget and the 2015 election. Mr. Cullen noted that the hearings provide his party an opportunity to ask experts about ideas that, if not adopted in the budget, could reappear in the NDP election platform.
"We see enormous opportunity in hearing from Canadians and experts to pull in some of the ideas we will be offering the public in the coming year," he said.
Michèle Clarke, who helped write one of the 418 prebudget submissions as government relations director for Colleges and Institutes Canada, said her group has not had a hard time arranging meetings with officials to discuss the budget.
"On the skills side," she said, "I think there will be some appetite to be able to consider some new programs, new initiatives, things that I think will resonate with industry."