Joe Oliver's challenge isn't tabling a balanced budget. It's writing one that stays balanced. Or at least one that looks balanced until election day.
So when the Finance Minister said last week he was delaying his budget to April because of instability in the markets, it was undoubtedly the real reason. In this case, the financial instability begets political instability.
Stability is important to Mr. Oliver's boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It's what Mr. Harper stands for, as a political brand: keeping things steady in uncertain times. And he is not, despite his tactical shrewdness, a politician who acts on impulse. He likes a script.
But the past few weeks have been full of uh-oh moments for Mr. Harper's Conservatives. The script they're already using may be out of date. Over the next two months, they'll be rewriting.
In October, Mr. Harper unveiled a $4.6-billion-a-year package of payouts to parents and tax breaks for single-parent families. That was to be followed by more goodies in a budget, along with the politically crucial confirmation that the books are balanced. The message was supposed to be that Mr. Harper steered the country through uncertainty, to sound finances, and lightened the load for families.
But plunging oil prices have changed that. They blow a hole in Mr. Oliver's projections, and may well transform the nature of voters' economic concerns, from making ends meet to job security and creation. There have been a lot of layoff notices lately. Perhaps measures such as income-splitting might not seem an odd prescription by the time an October election comes.
Whatever happens, the budget better be balanced. Or at least, Mr. Harper has to be able to campaign credibly insisting its numbers make sense. It's easier to do that in April – there's more time to judge the trend, and less time after the budget date for things to change dramatically. And the Conservatives may have a better sense of the public mood.
Delaying the budget to April doesn't rule out a spring election, as many have suggested. Paul Martin's government delivered a March 23 budget in 2004 and called a June election.
A more instinctive prime minister might make a gut decision to trigger a spring election, fearing the economy will get worse. But Mr. Harper? He may be tempted if he gains in the polls, but he tends to rely on careful planning.
Right now, he's not starting in a winning position. He's tied with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in opinion surveys. And breaking his own fixed-date election law is a big risk. Prime ministers who have been in power a long time end up running against their own broken promises and perceived character flaws – in Mr. Harper's case: the sense that he's autocratic and will do anything for tactical advantage. A spring election would start with Mr. Harper confirming his own "negatives."
And if he's planning now, the spring looks like it will be unpredictable – not just because of market uncertainty, but possibly high-profile layoffs, bankruptcies and economic eye-openers. Mr. Harper sells himself as a PM to lead through uncertainty, but as a political campaigner, he relies on planning: He sticks to carefully plotted series of events and messages, reluctant to deviate no matter what events bring. His team won that way, and seem to see it as the winning formula.
In other words, what's most important to Mr. Harper's Conservatives is not the uncertainty, or the downturn – it's the plan. In fact, they feel that a little economic uncertainty helps them, because it makes the economy the dominant issue and polls show they are rated as better economic managers than the NDP or the Liberals.
But they still need a political plan that isn't stale by the time the vote comes. That means a budget that appears to have planned right. Mr. Oliver can't afford to make rosy assumptions that turn obviously wrong by October, so it's clear the budget isn't really balanced. He can't afford to slash spending, starting a debate about austerity, and have it look like a panic later.
If he waits until April, there's just a much better chance it won't look obviously wrong by October. And perhaps Mr. Harper's Conservatives can find enough stability to rewrite the script.