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Headshot of Campbell Clark for logos of Ottawa bureau staff. June 18, 2010.Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail

Boring is good. That's what Jim Flaherty said about his last budget, and it's obviously what Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided about his second finance minister.

Joe Oliver isn't the most exciting figure in national politics. He's not the best salesperson or Commons debater in the Tory ranks. He's respected inside cabinet for his competence, but not known for his compelling TV interviews. It doesn't seem like the resumé for selling next year's pre-election budget.

But part of the job right now is to hide the Finance department's light under a bushel. The last thing Mr. Harper wants is to open a debate on how the federal government will spend its coming surpluses. When the time comes next year, there'll be others to take credit for new tax cuts and do the selling, starting with Mr. Harper himself.

In the meantime, Mr. Oliver's role is to be reassuring, rather than a bold budget architect.

At 73, he's had a long career in investment banking and securities regulation, so he'll be able to speak to players in the markets in their own language and calm concerns in the absence of Mr. Flaherty, the only finance minister Mr. Harper's Tories ever had. The role had to be handed to a senior cabinet minister, and the Conservatives' front bench is surprisingly thin on economics experience.

But it's hard to imagine that Mr. Oliver will have a free hand in writing the next budget. That will instead carry the stamp of Mr. Harper and his election-campaign strategists.

Mr. Flaherty entered the post with his own stature, and political base, as a veteran Ontario politician and cabinet minister. Even so, the Prime Minister's Office had its fingers deep into the building of his budgets. Compared to most finance ministers, Mr. Oliver has relatively little profile as he enters the job. He's far more likely to be directed by the PMO.

That's especially true because the next budget will mark the transition to surplus, and an election document.

The first challenge is to go back to surplus, and that's pretty much assured by the framework that's already in place, said McGill University economics professor Christopher Ragan. The second challenge is dealing with the surplus.

That's not as easy as it sounds. "I can tell you it's way harder to deal with a surplus than to cut spending," said Queens's University economist Don Drummond, a former senior Finance department official. Everybody wants a piece of it. There are demands for various kinds of spending and tax cuts. And the provinces, in a tougher fiscal bind, are likely to press for more transfers, arguing there's a renewed "fiscal imbalance."

The Conservatives haven't said how they'd divide up a surplus. But Mr. Ragan notes that using them to pay down debt is never popular, and it's not really necessary, because running balanced budgets while the economy grows will reduce the debt burden, anyway. Instead the Conservatives are far more likely to try to use up those surpluses, to project budgets close to zero balance.

They're likely to do that by cutting taxes. Announcing big tax cuts next year that use up all of the projected surpluses would make it harder for their NDP and Liberal opponents to promise new spending. As Mr. Ragan notes, it's unpopular to increase taxes to pay for new spending.

What tax cuts? The Conservatives have signalled they'll adopt income splitting and increase limits for tax-free savings accounts. The latter won't cost very much. Income splitting would eat up a big portion of the surplus, but it benefits few people, so it's not likely to be a political winner. Mr. Flaherty mused it might not work, and the Tories are likely to look for other ways to cut taxes. Economists would rather see broad-based cuts, like reducing income-tax rates, but Mr. Drummond notes that a one-percentage point cut costs $6-billion, so it's hard to make it sound grand.

There are economic challenges: Canada faces slow growth for a period of years, said Glen Hodgson, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, so it should use its surpluses to promote growth – by spending on infrastructure and investing in skills and education to improve productivity. Tax cuts won't do much for growth, he argues. But there are varying prescriptions – both Mr. Ragan and Mr. Drummond note it's not easy to boost productivity.

But Mr. Oliver is likely to find that as finance minister, his job is to make sure the talk about surpluses stays boring, and that the markets stay quietly reassured – while next year's budget is taken over by election strategy.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.