It was a budget designed to be the end of an era, not the start of a new one.
After a rocky ride through deep recession, in which the government poured out billions in stimulus and then the deficit-cutting austerity that followed, there were no fireworks, no big budget initiatives, to mark the end of the effort. Instead, there was a tiny surplus masquerading as a small deficit, and a little busy-work with modest new measures.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty praised himself for digging out of tougher times, but kept the corks in the champagne. His budget painted a grim, grey picture of the times we're in: a wobbly recovery, where many Canadians still find it hard to find work, and families are laden with debt.
He laboured to hold back the idea of surplus, and the tide of expectations that come with it, till next year, an election year. It wasn't just the $3-billion cushion that made a surplus into a $2.9-billion deficit, but also the tone of cautious warning in the speech. He used the empty white spaces of a spare budget to attract Canadians' eyes to the deficit-cutting task being completed. This was a budget about safely landing the plane.
To the NDP and Liberals, who complained the budget didn't have the big-initiative ambition to address Canadians' fears about economic insecurity or a soft job market, especially for young people, Mr. Flaherty has a response: That would be reckless. The job's not done.
"It's been a long road back from the Great Recession to a balanced budget," he said. "We're not quite there yet, but we're almost there."
There are two political axioms behind this budget. The first is that voters don't easily believe what politicians say they'll do in the future. The second is that they don't re-elect you for what you've done in the past.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives are trying to address the first in a stay-the-course, modest budget that puts the focus on the completion of a key task – eliminating the deficit – intended to boost their economic credibility. They're addressing the second by leaving the oomph out of this year's budget, and saving the rewards of surplus – tax cuts or new programs – for next year's election-platform budget.
If you're not a smoker paying higher cigarette taxes or a civil servant whose health benefits will be cut, chances are this budget won't directly affect you. Instead, there were small items, mostly to plug some political holes, from cutting suspended senators' pension benefits to funding the long-neglected replacement bridge to Montreal.
Most crucially, politically, there were jobs programs – not big ones, and not with big money, but with a main-street simplicity that allows the Conservatives to claim action. The budget funded 3,000 new job internships for young people and $100-million in loans for trades apprenticeships, and pledged $500-million in "repayable contributions" to the lagging Canadian auto sector.
But it's an anti-climactic end to an era of shocks. The Conservatives initially underplayed what their budget now calls the Great Recession before – under threat of defeat by a Liberal-NDP coalition – pumping out billions in stimulus, scrambling for "shovel-ready" plans for everything from roads to hockey arenas in 2009. The deficit peaked at $55.6-billion.
Mr. Flaherty's job since has been shrinking the shortfall, first by withdrawing stimulus, then through restraint: slashing foreign aid, cutting defence spending, reducing the ranks of the civil service, and a long list of trims to programs. With spending levels essentially frozen, a gradually recovering economy brought in more revenues, wiping out the deficit.
Mr. Flaherty's Tuesday budget was aimed at reminding Canadians of all that, to give the Conservatives credit for getting through the the hardest times and digging out of deficit, with a calculated message: Just a little more to go.
It is a calculated gamble. Canadians feel unease about the economy. Polls show many still think it's in recession, that consumer confidence is slipping, and that Canadians rate creating jobs as more important than erasing the deficit. The political risk of an understated budget is that some will view the government as insufficiently active in boosting growth, dealing with stagnant wages, and helping their working-age kids into jobs – especially if a weak economy fuels anxiety. Certainly, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made their critique clear: While Canadians face deep concerns about jobs and their pocketbooks, Mr. Harper's government isn't doing much.
But for Mr. Harper's Tories, timing is key to the calculation before a 2015 election. This year's message had to be that the tough job is nearly, but not quite, done. Because next year's message is that the rewards are coming.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.