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Conservatives try to cover up weaknesses before election

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds a press conference in the media lock-up prior to tabling the budget in Ottawa on Feb. 11, 2014.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For the most part, Jim Flaherty invited Canadians to look back. When his 2014 budget did look forward, it wasn't to paint the runway for next year's election, but to fill some potholes on the road.

This budget's overriding objective was to focus eyes on the path out of deficit, but still show action on weak spots with a long list of small-money measures.

The public's concern about jobs was met with internships for unemployed and loans for apprentices in trades, and money for the lagging Canadian auto sector; there was money for an overlooked Montreal bridge, and even a measure to cut back the pensions of suspended senators. But it was budgeting on a budget, and designed to look that way.

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Mr. Flaherty's spare budget speech, less than 2,400 words, was an ode to conservatism, both small-c and big. He filled it with words like "careful," "sound," and "common-sense," and literally promised to "stay the course." Look back at how we came out of recession with a job market that was better than most, and carefully pared spending to get out of deficit, he suggested. In his press conference, he made a virtue of its modesty: "Boring is good," he said.

The measures he highlighted were mostly small-money job-training initiatives aimed at providing a little boost into the job market, modest funds for research and specific infrastructure, and consumer-choice initiatives.

None of it could be allowed to affect the central message that the government is carefully skimping its way out of deficit. Stephen Harper's government knows that after eight years in power, their re-election hopes ride on making the most for a pool of roughly 40 per cent of Canadians with conservative leanings, and eliminating the deficit is the first job they must say they have done.

But a hodge-podge of small measures were placed in this budget in a way that suggests that the Conservatives compiled an inventory of potential weak points, and ticked them off a list.

The Conservatives highlight their employment-creation record since the depths of the 2009 recession, but there is public concern that job market is soft, especially for young people. Instead of a big-money job-creation agenda they put forward a series of small programs to help people enter the job market.

The budget provides $40-million over two years to provide 3,000 job internships for young people, expand students loans to apprentices learning trades and renews $75-million in funding for older workers. The biggest item is $500-million in research funding for the auto industry – money that is supposed to boost the job market in those close-fought suburban Ontario ridings that houses an industry falling behind its counterparts in the U.S. and Mexico.

The Conservatives' political opponents, the NDP and the Liberals, will no doubt argue it's piddling ambition, that it doesn't take the big steps necessary to address Canadians' insecurity about their finances and a weak job market, especially for youth. The Conservatives will point to the measures in this budget, though modest, to say they're addressing it.

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There are also small pots of money to address other weaknesses, and give little boosts for the rural-suburban Conservative base.

The budget cut off pension accruals for the controversial suspended senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, and Pamela Wallin. The fiscal plan provides $2-million to fix frustratingly-complex website services for veterans angered by office closures.  It puts a little money into labour-market assessments for temporary foreign workers, so the Conservatives can say they are addressing complaints about foreigners taking Canadian jobs.

There's money for the project to build a new bridge to Montreal, unfunded in 2009 stimulus plans, and for a Windsor-Detroit bridge, to alleviate border blockages. And it puts money into the rural Conservative base, for broadband internet in rural areas and even snowmobile trails.

There were also measures that don't play to the base, but will fend off some critics: First Nations education, as previously announced, was given a long-term funding increase, and the budget announced a 10-year, $1.5-billion plan for funding university research chairs.

To pay for their new measures, and trim the deficit a little, the Conservatives settled on ideas that won't hurt their political base. They'll cut contributions to public-service health-care benefits, saving $1.6-billion by 2015-16 – popular with small-c conservative voters. They'll delay plans to buy defence equipment, which will save $575-million this coming year – likely calculating that they won't make any further vote gains from military spending. And they'll haul in $700-million by raising tobacco taxes.

Instead of a platform for re-election, this is a budget designed to clear the path to the platform – shoring up weaknesses in little ways while focusing eyes on the deficit job that's all but done. It's next year, with a budget surplus in an election year, when the Conservatives will put new, big measures like tax cuts on offer – and don't expect them to argue that "boring is good" then.

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Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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