Skip to main content

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, in the House of Commons Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, has guided the spending review leading up to the federal budget.The Canadian Press

Tony Clement's letter warning ministers and deputy ministers to watch out for end-of-year March Madness spending in their departments – The Globe obtained Thursday – reminds us that the next federal budget, the most important in years, will, in effect, be presented by two ministers.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will preside over a document that updates the economic situation, that charts a path to eliminating the deficit, and that probably lifts the veil on plans to raise the retirement age for Old Age Security over time.

That alone would make for an ambitious budget. But it will also lay out spending cuts of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent for every department of the government, including autonomous agencies such as the CBC. Mr. Clement, the Treasury Board President, has guided the review leading up to the cuts, essential to the Conservatives' balanced-budget plans, and will sell those cuts to bureaucrats and voters. And on the communications side, at least, that could be a problem.

Mr. Clement has served as an indisputably capable politician at both the Ontario and federal levels for almost 20 years – guiding changes to the Harris government's controversial omnibus bill, managing the SARS crisis, stick-handling the decision to keep Potash Corp. in Canadian hands.

But he also has an unerring tendency to attract political lightning, sometimes by deliberately flying kites in thunderstorms. He tried and miserably failed to explain the Harper government's reasoning when it abolished the mandatory long-form census, leading to the unprecedented resignation of his own deputy minister.

And to this day, Mr. Clement takes hits for the extravagant and questionably vetted spending in his riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka before and during the Huntsville G8. The word "gazebo" will forever come between Tony and Clement.

Under his watch, and that of a cabinet committee, the spending review has proceeded with relatively few leaks, misfires or internal scandals. (At least none that have reached the ears of media.) For that, no doubt, Tony Clement the capable manager can take much of the credit.

But Tony (Gazebo) Clement will be the face before the cameras once the budget reveals the true pain of the public-service downsizing. And while Mr. Clement is easily as capable a communicator as Mr. Flaherty, the residual static from the G8 spending imbroglio will doubtless distort his message.

There is nothing that Mr. Clement or Stephen Harper can do about it. The Prime Minister knew the G8 flak would dog the minister when he gave him Treasury Board last June.

Mr. Harper clearly values Mr. Clement's skills as a stick-handler of difficult files enough to live with the noise, doubtless because the people most enraged about the G8 spending are implacable foes of the government in any case.

So it will be the Jim and Tony show when the budget comes down, gazebos and all.

Follow John Ibbitson on and Twitter