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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty enter the House of Commons to deliver the federal budget on March 29, 2012.Dave Chan

Harper government ministers fanned out across the country Friday, selling the Conservatives' restraint budget to Canadians.

The Tory message is they have cut spending with a scalpel, not an axe.

They suggested Friday that public service cuts will be spread out across Canada rather than centred in Ottawa, with only 4,800 of 12,000 job losses hitting the nation's capital.

Ottawa plans to chop 19,200 public-service jobs, cut federal program spending by $5.2-billion a year and, in perhaps its most controversial move, extend the retirement age of millions of Canadians to 67.

Nearly 20 cabinet ministers are making speeches from Charlottetown to Victoria Friday, billing the fiscal plan as a "modest" rather than drastic, austerity budget.

In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, the political minister responsible for the nation's capital, assured a local business audience that job losses for area bureaucrats won't be that deep.

Mr. Baird predicted Ottawa-area job losses for public servants will number "roughly 4,800 over the next three years."

He contrasted that with much deeper layoffs made by the former Liberal government in the late 1990s.

The Tories are branding the 2012 budget as an effort to make hard choices now so that federal programs and benefits are sustainable over the long term. Its level of cuts was more cautious than many had expected.

"We here in Ottawa and Ontario remember the dark days of 1995 all too well," Mr. Baird told his Ottawa audience, contrasting the 2012 budget with deficit fighting in the 1990s.

"Because not only did the feds balance the budget on the backs of the provinces in the mid-1990s. They did so on the backs of the public service, too."

Mr. Baird said back then, "tens of thousands of local jobs disappeared almost immediately."

He called the 2012 fiscal plan a deliberate and thoughtful approach, one that "focuses on improving services, not slashing them."

But John Gordon, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is skeptical. "Not only is it the cuts that concern us, there's no detail with respect to which services are going to be affected by this, which programs are going to be affected. That's where the devil is."

The $170-million to be cut from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's $2.5-billion budget by 2014-15 will make only a small impact on the government's bottom line, but it is likely to bring deep cuts to operations.

About $900-million of that budget pays dues for important international groups such as the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The government said it will sell some ambassadors' residences and get cheaper ones to make a one-time profit of $80-million. But it also said it would adjust the pay for diplomats – who typically earn more when posted abroad than in Ottawa – to bring their compensation in line with private-sector benefits.

In a later scrum with reporters, Mr. Baird refused to provide further details on Foreign Affairs budget cuts, such as rumored closings of Canadian consulates in the U.S.

He said he'd say more in "short order" but wanted to announce reductions to Foreign Affairs staff first.

"We want to do people the courtesy of talking to them before we announce" cuts, Mr. Baird said.

He suggested Asia-Pacific spending would emerge relatively unscathed because it's a priority region for trade today, noting Canada just upgraded one China mission location to a full consulate.

With a report from Kim Mackrael