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PM plans cross-country listening tour ahead of tough-love budget Add to ...

In the run-up to what promises to be the most contentious federal budget in years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is launching a round of national public consultations Tuesday in Winnipeg, asking Canadians to tell his government what should be cut and what should be saved.

The Prime Minister is sending his cabinet ministers and MPs out into ridings to solicit advice as the government prepares to end stimulus spending, curtail growth in federal spending and slash the deficit.

Such consultations are as much acts of political theatre as real pulse-taking. The Finance Department and the Prime Minister's Office have sophisticated tools at hand, such as polls and focus groups, to gauge public attitudes. But political theatre has its uses.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is promising to make targeted investments in health care, education and other social policies, while also constraining federal spending. The Tories are offering a very different approach, focusing almost entirely on restraint.

The budget, expected in March, will highlight the policy cleavage between the two major parties. That budget, and the Liberal reaction to it, may well be the foundation of a federal election.

So the more the Conservatives are seen to consult in advance of that budget, the stronger becomes their argument that they are only carrying out the will of the people.

Or so the Prime Minister hopes, as he pauses in Winnipeg on his way to the G20 summit in Korea.

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