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Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page unveils his costing of the Afghan mission at an Ottawa news conference on Oct. 9, 2008. (CHRISTOPHER PIKE/Reuters)
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page unveils his costing of the Afghan mission at an Ottawa news conference on Oct. 9, 2008. (CHRISTOPHER PIKE/Reuters)

Morning buzz

Statscan good, Kevin Page bad, PMO says Add to ...

1. Tory numbers game. Stephen Harper's strategists have been very busy spinning. Yesterday, they fired off an internal memo criticizing the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page.

This morning they were crowing in another internal memo about the latest Statistics Canada numbers, showing the unemployment rate has dropped from 8.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent, with the economy added nearly 21,000 jobs last month.

And that means, according to the memo to MPs and supporters, the government's Economic Action plan (a.k.a. the budget) is working.

"Jobs and economic growth remain our top priority," the PMO strategists say, underlining that message from the Prime Minister yesterday in his reply to the Throne Speech.

So while the Tories are happy with Statistics Canada, they are not happy with Mr. Page, who said yesterday Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's fiscal plan falls short in its assertion the books will be balanced in five years.

The parliamentary watchdog says the government's budget predictions are out by about $10-billion. Not surprisingly, Mr. Page's criticism provoked an outraged missive from the PMO.

"Our budget is credible," the memo says. "Our forecasts are prudent." It explains that the Finance did due diligence in meeting with "Canada's leading private sector economists."

"They agreed that a reasonable planning base for Budget 2010 was the average of each economist's growth for the coming years," the PMO strategists say. "The federal government has been basing its budget projections on the average of private sector economic forecasts since 1994."

The internal memo even quotes experts, who agree with Mr. Flaherty's efforts. "It's a credible plan, and it gets us back to balance in a reasonable time," according to Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank.

Mr. Page, meanwhile, is a constant source of irritation for the government. In his quiet but deliberate way he has differed often with the government's numbers and predictions.

This time he is pointing out that the deficit is structural and cannot be reduced only by growth. Mr. Flaherty's plan will not get rid of it in five years, Mr. Page has long maintained.

2. 'No discernible impact.' Canadians paid little attention to Stephen Harper's budget, a budget that resulted from the closure of Parliament for six weeks so he could recalibrate his efforts.

According to pollster Frank Graves, however, Canadians' ignorance may be a very good thing for the Prime Minister. In a new EKOS survey, he looks at the impact of last week's budget on the electorate.

"The impact was overwhelmingly neutral," Mr. Graves says. "For the [Conservative Party]this is probably a good thing as this was a risky budget. No great dollops of cash/goodies for voters but the public seemed fine with the message of fairly painless restraint."

EKOS found that 49 per cent of Canadians were clearly aware of the budget, compared to 31 per cent who were vaguely aware and 20 per cent who were not aware at all.

And as to whether this budget would affect their lives: the EKOS poll found that 64 per cent of respondents felt that it would have no effect or change at all, compared to 24 per cent who felt they would be worse off; 12 per cent said they would be better off.

In addition, the poll found that 51 per cent of respondents didn't approve or disapprove of the budget.

The survey of 2,015 Canadians was conducted between March 4 and March 9. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

"So yet another example of a major government initiative which seems to have no discernible impact on the stubbornly inert electorate," Mr. Graves says. "This would be fine for them if they were where they thought they would be and where they were pre-prorogation."

He was referring to the fact that the Tories had been up in the high 30s last fall, knocking on the door of a majority government.

"But at 32 points [his numbers showed yesterday the Conservatives are polling at 31.9 per cent in voter intention compared to 29.6 for the Liberals]there must be some anxiety about what it will take to lift them from the position of being in the low thirties and virtually neck and neck with the LPC."

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