The Conservative government is confirming what it's been hinting at for weeks: Spending cuts in the upcoming federal budget could be twice as deep as Ottawa's original target.
Rather than aiming for a 5-per-cent cut overall and permanent savings of $4-billion a year – as outlined in the 2011 budget – the government is now clearly describing the 5-per-cent cut as the low end of a targeted range.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who spent the past year leading a cabinet committee focused on finding savings, provided an update Thursday in a speech to the Empire Club of Toronto.
"I have led a cabinet committee to review the plans of federal departments and agencies to achieve savings of between 5 and 10 per cent in their program budgets; in other words, reductions of anywhere between $4-billion and $8-billion," said Mr. Clement, according to a copy of his remarks.
"My committee has been working around the clock, reviewing individual proposals. After appropriate deliberations by cabinet and caucus, the results of our efforts will be found in budget 2012."
What the government is saying now and what it was saying at the time of the last budget sound similar, but there are important distinctions.
The 2011 budget outlined a deficit-cutting timeline that called for permanent savings of $1-billion in 2012-13 and $2-billion in 2013-14, before reaching the goal of $4-billion by 2014-15.
The 2011 budget described
the target as being "at least $4-billion in ongoing annual savings," but there was no explicit mention in the budget that the cuts could be as high as $8-billion.
Officials explained at the time that departments would be asked to submit proposals for 5- and 10-per-cent cuts to Mr. Clement's committee, with the ultimate goal of meeting the 5-per-cent cut overall.
Mr. Clement's comments – combined with recent statements from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that some departments could be cut by more than 10 per cent – underscore growing expectations that the final cuts will come sooner and deeper than the original plan outlined in the 2011 budget.
On Wednesday, interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel vowed to make the Conservatives' upcoming budget the "fight of my life."
In a speech to the NDP caucus, she said the Prime Minister has his priorities wrong.