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Politics With federal budget, Morneau plays it safe in uncertain times

The unprecedented ratio of words to numbers in Bill Morneau's second budget speech was a good hint about what was in this year's blueprint. The Finance Minister's whole 3,300-word speech had only two numbers that came with dollar signs.

Mr. Morneau mustered the verbiage to reassure and to conjure nifty ideas about the economic future, but without many measures that really change the bottom line.

This is a budget for a tentative, wait-and-see government.

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Federal budget highlights: 10 things you need to know

Last year, the direction seemed so clear. There was a high-flying government, and even with collapsed oil revenues and a soft economy, it was going to rack up a $30-billion deficit with a Canada Child Benefit, spending on Indigenous communities and launching an infrastructure spending spree. This year, the deficit numbers are about as high as they're willing to let them go, Donald Trump is creating uncertainty and that driving impetus is gone.

There's a sprinkling of money in various places, some repackaging of last year's plan and talk about things that will probably come later.

The 2016 budget had $800-million over four years for economic innovation clusters. This year's budget took the same plan, extended it for an extra year, to 2022, and sold it as $950-million for "superclusters." The money is basically the same, but the adjectives have superpowers.

There was a hint that defence spending will be increased – Mr. Trump is pressuring NATO allies to spend more – but we'll find out about that next year, after a defence policy review is completed. We'll see.

The biggest new thing that actually is in the 2017 budget says a lot about what Justin Trudeau's Liberals think about Canadians' priorities right now: an increase in job-training programs, financed in large part by an increase in Employment Insurance premiums.

This was this year's brand of constrained budget choice. The Liberals didn't think they could risk making their deficits much bigger to promise big new things; they didn't choose to cut spending, or even identify a way to eventually balance a budget. They decided Canadians want to feel they've got a little more insurance for job insecurity, and are willing to pay a little more in payroll taxes to get it.

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The government promises to put $2.7-billion more into those training programs over six years, to change the employment-insurance act to broaden eligibility, and in addition, to make it easier for part-time and older students to get access to student loans – a package for more people to get new training when they've lost a job.

It's not yet clear what most of that will look like, as it depends on talks with the provinces. But it was possible, in part, because a lot of money comes from outside the budget per se: a big chunk will be financed by increasing EI premiums to $1.68 per $100 in wages from $1.63.

There was also a package of items to promote innovation and fast-growing sectors, including $125-million to develop a "Pan-Canadian" artificial-intelligence strategy, a pledge to fund venture capital, and so on.

But the big-ticket item in that innovation strategy remains the money set aside to develop clusters for "highly innovative industries" – and it's remarkable that even now, in the second budget announcing the same initiative, there's only a vague description of what those clusters will look like.

For the rest: The new money was mostly small dollars spread to many places, often more symbolic than focused. The budget argues teaching kids science, technology, engineering and math is important, but Ottawa's initiative is to put $1.5-million over five years into a teaching award. Alberta's resource sector is suffering, so Ottawa will give the province a one-time payment of $30-million. Those aren't sums to get to the heart of the problem. Mr. Morneau spent a lot of this budget puttering around the house doing odd jobs.

And now the Trudeau government waits. The deficits forecast for the next few years are now about as high as they can go without breaking Mr. Morneau's last constraint – the promise they will not increase the ratio of debt to the size of the economy. There was no pretense that Mr. Morneau is even trying to balance the budget. In five years, the deficit is forecast to be $18.8-billion. That's not an enormous deficit, but one that's ever-present: getting it to zero isn't even a target any more.

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If economic growth improves, it will work out: public anxiety will ease, the deficit will shrink. If things go wrong, if Mr. Trump whacks trade or the economy falters, the deficit will smash through Mr. Morneau's constraints, and then the Liberals will face only bad options. For now, with this budget, the Liberals wait and see.

Beata Caranci, chief economist at TD Bank says the 2017 federal budget did not have large initiatives and is a very safe budget in terms of spending
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